Will This Technology Make Fish Farming More Sustainable?

Civil Eats | July 6, 2016

Salmon farm

Salmon farm. Photo credit: antonalfred courtesy of Creative Commons

Wild seafood is disappearing rapidly and many consumers have turned to farmed fish as a way to help reverse the trend. But finding a sustainable source of food for carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna—which rank as the second and third most popular types of seafood in America—has been a persistent challenge for aquaculture producers.

Now, a group of scientists have developed a new form of fish feed that uses no agricultural land and requires very little water. It’s called FeedKind and it’s made from bacteria that eats methane and turns it into energy.

This approach is promising because for a long time fish farms merely fed these fish a diet consisting of wild “forage” fish and oil derived from wild fish. But it often took several pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish, making it a loss for the oceans.

Then, in recent years, the aquaculture industry turned to feed based on corn, soy, and wheat, usually using dried distiller grains. While these solutions are often better for the oceans, they also rely heavily on agricultural land, much in the way other animal feed does. Similarly, they rely on the use of pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean.

“We’re taking carbon from outside the food chain, which frees up more food for humans,” says Josh Silverman, the founder and chief products officer of Calysta, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley. “And we’re turning methane into a higher value product.”

Calysta says FeedKind could address sustainability problems plaguing aquaculture, which the Food and Agricultural Organization found is one of the fastest-growing agricultural industries worldwide.

After raking in $30 million of capital from investors in a third round of funding—including animal feed giant Cargill—since December, Calysta is readying a R&D plant in England that plans to manufacture FeedKind at pilot scale by the end of this year. It’s also hoping to get a North American commercial production facility online by 2018.

FeedKind is made by first dissolving methane in water with the bacteria (methanotrophs that are commonly found in the top layer of soil). The bacteria gobbles up the methane molecules. Then, after the mixture is fermented, the protein produced from this process is extruded and formed into pellets.

“[People] have known about this bacteria for years,” says Silverman, who has a Stanford PhD in biotechnology and comes from the biopharmaceutical industry. “But no one had thought about how to use them in industrial applications.”

The alternative fish feed was originally developed over a decade ago by Norferm, a Norwegian company that won approval to sell FeedKind in the European Union. After Calysta acquired the company in 2014, Silverman says he refined the fermenting process.

Norferm only tested the product in salmon. But Silverman claims that FeedKind could also be used to feed other carnivorous fish such as halibut, sea bass, sea bream, eel, and shrimp—perhaps even terrestrial livestock and pigs, he adds.

Jan Brekke, the CEO of Sogn Aqua, a sustainable halibut farm in Norway, says he has not tested FeedKind on his fish, but is encouraged by its potential.

“The whole idea of [not] using biomass from the sea to produce fishmeal will turn global fish farming in a total different direction,” he said in an email.

FeedKind is not an environmentally pristine product. For one thing, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere during the fermenting process. And Silverman says that Calysta plans to source the methane for FeedKind from natural gas extracted from the electricity grid rather than capturing it from the atmosphere. (Methane is a significant component of natural gas).

Still, Carbon Trust, a London-based consulting firm, found that producing FeedKind consumed 76 percent less water than growing the same amount of protein found in soybean meal and 98 percent less water than wheat gluten. (Calysta sponsored the research, but Carbon Trust maintains that its conclusions were developed independently and the study was peer reviewed.)

Sourcing methane from the grid rather than capturing the emissions produced from human activities (such as fossil fuel production, livestock farming and decomposing landfill waste) may seem like a huge missed opportunity, considering that the greenhouse gas is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But because natural gas is so inexpensive, Silverman says there’s no significant infrastructure or market incentive in place for his company to capture methane at commercial scale.

Still, Jillian Fry, the director of the Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, points out that the Carbon Trust study doesn’t take into account the large environmental impact associated with fracking, a process which is responsible for two-thirds of the natural gas produced in the U.S., according to the federal government.

“It’s a glaring gap,” she says. “Even if not 100 percent [of the natural gas and methane] comes from fracking, the water, land use, and the pollution need to be taken into account,” she says.

Silverman is hoping that commercializing FeedKind will help to stimulate further the unmet demand to convert methane into something more useful—and help to build the infrastructure Calysta needs to source methane more sustainably in the future.

Fry adds that because of the carbon dioxide that’s released and the methane sourcing, it’s difficult to say at this stage if FeedKind is something everyone should throw their support behind.

But she still thinks it has promise. “We need to strike a balance—we don’t want to kill all enthusiasm for a new product and say that there’s no progress unless it’s flawless,” she says. “It’s very exciting to hear about this kind of development.”

Note: This story was reprinted in GreenBiz on August 16, 2016.

How one company is feeding farms with food waste

Civil Eats | Sept. 21, 2015

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

California Safe Soil takes supermarket food waste and turns it into farm fertilizer. (Photo credit: California Safe Soil).

You don’t have to dumpster dive to know that supermarkets send a steady stream of uneaten food to landfills.

Once there, the waste does more than smell bad. It also contributes to climate change by emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (one reason the USDA recently pledged to reduce food waste 50 percent nationally by 2030).

But when a new California state law [PDF] goes into effect this April, large grocery stores in the state will be required to ditch the landfill and compost or recycle their food waste instead.

In order for supermarkets to comply with the impending law, they’ll need more places to put the waste—and one Sacramento-based company appears to be well positioned to respond to this problem. California Safe Soil has developed a process that transforms truckloads of supermarket food waste into farm-ready fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest, or H2H.

“This was something that made perfect sense to me,” says CEO Dan Morash, who founded the startup in 2012, after leaving a career as an investment banker in the energy sector. “There’s this huge stream of waste from the supermarkets that is no longer safe to eat as it gets to the end of its shelf life, but it still has a lot of nutrients.”

Using fertilizer made from food waste also cuts down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, he adds, which can reduce the amount of nitrate runoff into local rivers and streams, which often lead to dead zones.

The company claims that since its launch in 2012, it has diverted over 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, preventing the emissions of 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases and preventing the need for over 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers.

Final Liquid Fertilizer ProductHow is Morash’s product different from standard compost? He worked with soil and fertilizer specialist Mark LeJeune to develop a method that fast forwards the composting process (which is fueled by aerobic digestion, or bacteria fed by oxygen that breaks down organic matter). The process turns food waste into liquid fertilizer in three hours.

First, the food is ground down into a liquid, then treated with enzymes to break down the protein, fat, and carbohydrates into the amino acids, fatty acids, and simple sugars. Then, it’s pasteurized (that is, heated at high temperatures) to kill any pathogens that might be present.

“The average particle size is very small—26 microns,” Morash says. “This [enables it to] mix easily with water.”

There’s a separate stream for organic and conventional food, as California Safe Soil sells an all-organic version. Both are applied to the crops via drip irrigation.

In 2012, Morash and LeJeune opened a pilot plant in Sacramento to develop the technology. The product was commercialized in 2013 and is regulated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“The California Department of Food and Agriculture is concerned about food safety, so we had to prove that [the fertilizer production process] eliminates pathogens,” Morash says. “So we did a research project called a challenge test at the University of California, Davis.”

To show that the product was effective, the company conducted additional experiments with researchers, including one at U.C. Davis and a strawberry expert at U.C. Cooperative Extension.

Morash claims that use of his fertilizer on tomatoes has upped the rate of food production by between 10 to 15 percent.

California Safe Soil’s target market is mainly large farms that grow crops like strawberries, tomatoes, leafy greens, almonds, and wine grapes. Several of the berry growers that he works with supply for Driscoll’s, Morash says.

Broccoli TrialBut orchard crops like fruit and nuts are especially well suited for this liquid fertilizer. Traditionally, orchard-based farmers “need to till the soil to get organic matter in without cutting up the roots,” he says. “So the ability to deliver organic matter to the soil in liquid form is a big positive.”

At the moment, the company processes food waste from 15 stores across five supermarket chains (Grocery Outlet, Nugget, Safeway, SaveMart, and Whole Foods) in Sacramento. Six days a week, the plant processes about 3,750 pounds of food from between seven to eight markets a day (each brings in an average of about 500 pounds daily).

The Sacramento facility is operating at capacity, but he hopes to build others in the coming years. The idea is to locate plants, like the one Sacramento, near grocery distribution centers. This way, after delivering goods to the stores, the centers’ trucks can fill up with food waste for the trip home, Morash says.

There are additional economic and environmental benefits to locating California Safe Soil plants near distribution centers, he adds. Turning food waste into fertilizer not only saves grocery stores the fees associated with sending it to a landfill, but it also prevents the greenhouse gas emissions and extra transportation costs often needed to deliver it there.

“This has a very positive environmental impact across the board,” Morash says. “It’s going to increase the sustainability of agriculture starting right here in California.”

Photos, from the top: Employees moving wasted produce into the processing machine; the final liquid fertilizer product; broccoli from a farm trial with the control on the left and the H2H produced product on the right. All courtesy of California Safe Soil.