The lessons of intensive animal husbandry to aquaculture

egyptian farmingThe domestication of animals for food production started thousands of years ago, and has gone through a slow evolution since then. In the last 50 years, we have intensified productions systems to a very high degree. Aquaculture, although not unusual in ancient times, has really experienced an economic boom only rather recently, and future growth predictions are quite optimistic.

The development of intensive animal husbandry has helped provide people with high nutritional value  products, and it also offered the possibilities to farmers to have a reasonable source of income. On the other side, it has brought a number of problems, many of which have not been solved and this has resulted in pressure to reduce the level of intensification.

chicken farmWith high densities of animal in some regions, animal husbandry has had to deal with a number of health issues, such as not long ago avian flu and swine fever. The presence of large number of animals in limited areas has increased the “disease pressure” on farms and regions, making epizooties quite devastating, considering the amount of culling that health prevention measures require. This always takes a heavy economic toll, and not only on farmers. This has forced many countries to review their policies about intensive animal husbandry and downsized the sector.

To prevent diseases and mortality, intensive animal husbandry has made a widespread use of antibiotics, which also appeared to promote animal growth. Unfortunately, over time it has appeared that these antibiotics found their way into our bodies and ultimately into our drinking water reserves. The main threat that has arisen from the massive use of antibiotics is the emergence of bacteria resistance to these antibiotics, with the potential risk of making them ineffective, should bacteria become resistant to all of them. The result of this would be to bring us back to the pre-penicillin era with all the consequences that we know. Many countries have now addressed the problems surrounding the use of antibiotics and restricted their use to curative purposes.

Another strong impact on the environment has been the manure surpluses in intensive regions. Next to the odor problem, the excessive manure production has resulted in heavy pollution of the soil and of water reserves. Phosphates and heavy metals coming from the animal feed endangered the fertility of the soil. More mobile minerals, such as nitrates, have entered our drinking water, making it in many areas unsuitable for pregnant women and infants. Sadly, the intensive regions get in trouble because of a surplus of minerals that originate from raw materials produced in other parts of the world, while on the farms producing the feedstuffs, the minerals are not brought back. They have to be replaced by chemical fertilizers instead of the manure that would originate from the animals, such as in a closed system mixed farm.

Husbandry systems have evolved, too. After years of high degree of confinement, regulations have changed and are still changing to take animal welfare more into account. As examples, I could give the stop on tethering of sows and hen cage ban. I have no doubt that animal welfare will become a growing issue in aquaculture, too.

The use of feed and its constant quest to reduce production costs has brought the industry to use some raw materials that can be questionable. An example of this was meat and bone meal use, after the mad cow disease hit Britain in the mid 1990’s. Next to the possible transmission risks to humans, it has also raised some questions about whether herbivores should consume meat derivates.

Intensive animal husbandry has made meat, dairy and poultry very affordable to most consumers, at least in the Western countries. This has led to a shift in the diet from mainly starch to a much higher proportion of protein and fat. Unfortunately, this shift has had some negative effect on health. Animal products are high value sources of protein and fat, but excessive consumption has negative effects. While an annual consumption of 30 kg of meat per capita would do just fine, most Western countries have passed the level of 100kg. Of course, there are many discussions between the different parties involved about where the truth lies, but there are good indication that a good diet should include more fiber, more produce and less animal protein and fat.

Fish farmTherefore, above, I have tried to sum up the most noticeable results of intensification of land animal production. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned for the “new” aquaculture industry, and by this, I mean the intensive, high investment aquaculture. Most companies involved in this business have been inspired mainly by the evolution-and the success- in the chicken industry. They try to copy and adapt a similar model. Therefore, it is rather predicable that they will have to deal eventually with similar consequences.

Fish farms have very high densities of animals. Even if the area at the sea level is rather limited, each farm goes quite deep, and the biomass they contain would make many chicken farms look like “small” operations. If you add to this that they are very exposed to the natural environment, as the pens are open nets, there is no wonder that they are very exposed to disease and disease spreading. The current situation in the Chilean salmon farming sector facing ISA just shows how sensitive these farms can be to diseases. My expectations is that aquaculture will be confronted to situations as bad as swine fever and avian flu, and they will have to revise their level of intensification, their location (including possible rotation of site with fallowing as a standard procedure). Further, navigation rules will be strengthened to reduce the possibility of cross-contamination from a marine zone to another.

Very likely, the sector will also further sharpen its veterinary procedures and increase their control on prevention and on medication.  About this part, it may seem that feces simply get flushed into the ocean, but that is not that certain. Feces always contain residues of medicines. The volume of feces produced is quite significant on such intensive fish farms and you can be sure that at some point, simply letting them go into the sea will not be allowed anymore. I foresee that fish pens will have feces collection systems in the future and the “manure” will have to find some use.

The feed industry is now diversifying it sources of raw materials to cope with the rising price of fish oil and fish meal, which is the result of higher demand from the fast growing aquaculture. They carry out lots of research to find the right profiles of oil to meet the fish flesh quality requirements (especially omega3) by using vegetal oil, but one can wonder whether this will be a sustainable approach in the long run. Maybe there will be a completely new industry to produce “farmed” fish oil and fish meal to meet the feed industry needs.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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