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Fish and Soybean Farmers to Shake Hands?

The open ocean aquaculture industry may have just made a new friend - the soy industry.  The Soy Aquaculture Alliance is ever closer to making an agreement to use soy as feed in open ocean fish farming pens in federal waters, a move that would reportedly impact the marine environment as well as the diets of both fish and consumers - and not necessarily in a good way.

According to a new report by Food & Water Watch, an independent public interest organization funded through members, individual donors, and foundation grants, a collaboration between these two industries could be devastating to ocean life and consumer health.

“Our seas are not Roundup ready,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “Soy is being promoted as a better alternative to feed made from wild fish, but this model will not help the environment, and it will transfer massive industrial farming models into our oceans and further exacerbate the havoc wreaked by the soy industry on land—including massive amounts of dangerous herbicide use and massive deforestation.”

The soy industry stands to gain over $200 million each year by aggressively promoting the use of soy to feed farmed fish at a time when more and more consumers are eating seafood sourced from aquaculture or fish farms. Close to half of the seafood consumed globally comes from these factory fish farms.

For example, Cargill, the world’s largest trader in agricultural commodities and the third largest soybean-crushing firm, acquired Burris Mill & Feed in 2004 and with it intends to further its presence in the aquaculture industry. Another player is Monsanto, a leading multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, which recently supported a study on incorporating soy into fish diets by providing both genetically modified and non-genetically modified soy for  salmon in feed trials. If the soy-aquaculture partnership comes to fruition, both companies can look forward to millions in profits.

Despite the seemingly "full steam ahead" attitude of the Alliance, there are still unanswered questions when it comes to the safety of farming regions, aquatic habitats and consumers. Food & Water Watch reported the following key findings regarding these fragile components:

  • Soy-based feed can cause nutrient deficiency in fish due to poor digestibility. Because of this, fish tend to produce excessive amounts of waste, which attracts disease and bacteria, and disrupts the normal ecology of the immediate marine environment.

  • Deforestation to clear land for soy farms, which is already a problem in South America, could increase given the large quantity of soy that aquaculture would require to meet U.S. targets for finfish production.

  • Increased land use equates to increased fertilizer use, which gets washed off the fields and into waterways that eventually lead to important fisheries such as the Gulf of Mexico or the Chesapeake Bay. The nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers contribute to dead zones in these fisheries, reducing the number of fish that live there and inevitably the quantity and quality of catches.

  • There are unknown consequences of introducing phytoestrogen (an estrogen-like chemical produced by plants) to the marine environments around farms as well as to consumers who consume soy-fed fish.

  • Soy-based feed has shown a decrease in Omega-3 fatty acids concentrations in fish.

  • A growing number of researchers has noted that the potentially negative impacts of the increasing amount of soy in human diets are under-researched, and it is even less apparent what the long-term human health impacts could be of consuming soy secondarily, through fish and meat raised on soy.

Overall, it is clear more research is necessary on the environmental, economic and consumer impacts this development could create, but as it stands, we are certainly swimming in a sea of possibility and change.

Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch.

Samantha Neary

Samantha is a graduate of Boston University with concentrations in English, Biology and Environmental Policy. After working in higher education textbook publishing for some time, she turned to the freelance writing world and now reports on corporate social responsibility, green technology and policy, and conservation for TriplePundit.

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