Canola sector courts Chinese fish food maker

Aquaculture feed | SaskCanola is examining ways to improve canola meal digestibility by removing the hull

One of the world’s largest manufacturers of aquaculture feed remains keenly interested in Canadian canola meal.


Representatives of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission and the University of Saskatchewan met in May with Tongwei Group in China to discuss the potential for using canola meal in the company’s feed rations.


“Tongwei is the largest producer of aquaculture feeds in China, which means they’re enormous,” said Murray Drew, associate dean of academics with the university’s agriculture college.


He was impressed with Tongwei’s knowledge and interest in canola meal as evidenced by its president attending the meeting.


“He’s the eighth richest man in China and he’s a member of the Central Committee (of the Communist Party of China), so he’s a very important guy and very busy, but he took the time to sit down with us,” said Drew, who specializes in aquaculture nutrition research at the 
U of S.


Feed manufacturers are becoming increasingly interested in developing crop-based feeds for aquaculture, which is one of the fastest growing sectors of the food industry, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.


Aquaculture accounted for 42 percent of world fish production in 2012, according to a recently released FAO report. That’s up from 26 percent in 2000.


China dominated by producing 62 percent of the 67 million tonnes of aquaculture fish in 2012. The next highest producer was India at six percent.


Fishmeal is still the top ingredient in feed rations, but production of fishmeal from whole fish has been declining since 2005, while feed demand from the aquaculture industry has skyrocketed with the proliferation of intensive fish farm operations.


Soybean meal is the next most popular ingredient, but Drew said there is also a place for canola meal. 


Tongwei was keenly interested, he added.


“They want to know if they start buying this stuff that they have a steady supply. They said in some respects they were worried that they couldn’t get all the canola that they wanted from Canada,” he said.


“I thought, ‘well, that’s kind of a nice problem to have.’ ”


Tongwei announced during a 2012 Canadian trade mission to China that it intended to buy up to one million tonnes of Canadian canola meal annually by 2015. At that time, it was buying 200,000 tonnes of the product a year.


The one million tonne objective seems a stretch, largely because sales of canola meal to China were temporarily disrupted by a Chinese government requirement to inspect all foreign crush facilities to ensure they met the government’s new safety standards.


Exports to China plummeted from a high of 824,554 tonnes in 2010 to zero last year. 


However, Richardson International announced in March that it was the first Canadian crusher to gain Chinese approval to resume meal sales.


Canola meal is more economical than soybean meal and fishmeal. The price of fishmeal in Vancouver was $1,750 per tonne June 2 compared to $677 for soybean meal and $453 for canola meal, according to Agriculture Canada.


The problem with canola meal is the hull, which is indigestible and contains anti-nutritional factors that prevent animals from eating it in large amounts.


It limits the amount of canola meal that can be fed to fish such as trout and salmon. Fortunately, one of Tongwei’s primary customers is the carp industry, and carp do well on canola meal. 


Tongwei officials say canola meal can comprise up to 30 percent of their carp rations. 


“We always think of canola meal as the poor sister (of soybean meal), and that may not be true in some of the applications in aquaculture,” said Drew.


SaskCanola is interested in funding a joint research project between the U of S and Tongwei.


“We believe there could be post-crushing processes that would improve the meal so it would be palatable and digestible by fish,” said SaskCanola executive director Catherine Folkersen, who accompanied Drew on the China trip.


Drew recently attended an international fish nutrition meeting in Australia where he learned about a Norwegian company making fish rations out of trees using yeast fermentation technology. 


He believes the same technology could be employed to remove the problems associated with the canola seed hull. Tongwei is also investigating the technology. 


SaskCanola believes the two organizations should work together on a joint research project partially funded by Saskatchewan growers.


Folkersen said incorporating canola meal into aquaculture diets would be a home run because the industry now relies almost entirely on the U.S. dairy sector.


The United States took 95 percent of the 3.3 million tonnes of Canadian canola meal exported last year.


“We are in a bit of a precarious situation with our largest customer being the U.S dairy market,” said Folkersen.


“What happened a few years ago when there was the issue with salmonella and feed in canola meal? The door just closes, right now.”


Folkersen said having multiple markets for the product would drive up the price of canola meal and hopefully result in higher canola prices for growers.