Can hemp be a source of fish food? That's the question a team of researchers from Rare Earth Global (RGE) in the United Kingdom are trying to solve and are moving towards using the plant as a sustainable protein source for Scottish salmon feed.
Following the success of the first experiments, the steps go further for the UK Seafood Innovation Fund (SIF) backed project of GBP 260,000. This project involves both large-scale research and development, as well as a two-month feed evaluation. This last part is where the researchers want to move forward now.
"The first feasibility trial returned positive results for the viability of hemp seed protein as a core aquaculture feed ingredient. Now we are testing whether it could be included on a commercial scale," said Suneet Shivaprasad, director and co-founder of RGE. "Further research will enable us to look at a range of other factors over a longer time period, with the aim of demonstrating that this novel protein can be a success."
A feasibility study was conducted in 2022 in which researchers set out to explore how hemp seeds could be integrated into the diets of farmed salmon in Scotland. The team tested two types of hemp meal against different factors, such as digestibility, or fish growth… The result was that this ingredient provided the same nutritional profile than soy and fish meal, the most common protein sources.
So the next part was to monitor in vivo how the new feed in the diet affected the performance of the fish. For that, Rare Earth Global receives support from the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) and the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling for this task. On the other hand, Mowi, the world's largest producer of Atlantic salmon, will actively participate in the formulation and production of the feed. Finally, hemp seed production will be the work of Angus and Aberdeenshire.
"By conducting a two-month feed trial we hope to prove that hemp protein can serve as a direct replacement for soy in terms of digestibility, nutrition and growth. From what we have seen already, it has only had a positive impact on the salmon involved in our first trials," said Monica Betancor, associate professor at the University of Stirling's Institute of Aquaculture.
The research mission is to assess the feasibility of incorporating hemp meal protein into the market and identify an optimal diet composition. Additionally, the team will conduct tests using secondary ingredients employed in the feed.
Moreover, another focus of the project will be to assess sustainability, seeking to identify methods for hemp producers, feed companies, and seafood producers to measure the carbon footprint of the entire process.
As Shivaprasad explained, for them, this is also a fundamental part of the project. "Locally grown, plant-based ingredients are already more environmentally friendly than any imported soy or fishmeal. For that reason, our zero waste approach to growing it also ensures that every part of the hemp plant is used for maximum value. In this case, the seeds will be used as a protein source for aquaculture, while the stalks will be used for sustainable construction materials, bioplastics and bioenergy feedstocks."
Rare Earth Global (REG) is a UK-based company. REG dedicates itself to simplifying access to sustainable industrial hemp products for the energy, construction, and feed sectors. They establish demand-driven supply chains from industrial hemp, helping businesses reduce their emissions while providing local alternatives to high-emission. Collaborating with corporations and governments, they optimize technology and natural resources to foster circular economies. The company with the industrial hemp plant as their raw material, commits to making a positive impact on world.
SAIC, founded in 2014, drives aquaculture innovation, reducing environmental impact and boosting economic potential. They fund collaborative research, create spin-out businesses, and offer education and training programs to empower the workforce. As an independent voice, they provide science-based insights and knowledge exchange.
The UK Seafood Innovation Fund drives cutting-edge technology and sustainability in the fishing, aquaculture, and seafood industries. It supports ambitious projects for long-term productivity and innovation, spanning early-stage research to commercial viability. Administered by Cefas since 2019, the program funds feasibility studies and R&D projects to propel advancements in the seafood sector.