Feed conversion efficiency in aquaculture: do we measure it correctly?
Globally, demand for food animal products is rising. At the same time, we face mounting, related pressures including limited natural resources, negative environmental externalities, climate disruption, and population growth. Governments and other stakeholders are seeking strategies to boost food production efficiency and food system resiliency, and aquaculture (farmed seafood) is commonly viewed as having a major role in improving global food security based on longstanding measures of animal production efficiency. The most widely used measurement is called the 'feed conversion ratio' (FCR), which is the weight of feed administered over the lifetime of an animal divided by weight gained. By this measure, fed aquaculture and chickens are similarly efficient at converting feed into animal biomass, and both are more efficient compared to pigs and cattle. FCR does not account for differences in feed content, edible portion of an animal, or nutritional quality of the final product. Given these limitations, we searched the literature for alternative efficiency measures and identified 'nutrient retention', which can be used to compare protein and calories in feed (inputs) and edible portions of animals (outputs). Protein and calorie retention have not been calculated for most aquaculture species. Focusing on commercial production, we collected data on feed composition, feed conversion ratios, edible portions (i.e. yield), and nutritional content of edible flesh for nine aquatic and three terrestrial farmed animal species. We estimate that 19% of protein and 10% of calories in feed for aquatic species are ultimately made available in the human food supply, with significant variation between species. Comparing all terrestrial and aquatic animals in the study, chickens are most efficient using these measures, followed by Atlantic salmon. Despite lower FCRs in aquaculture, protein and calorie retention for aquaculture production is comparable to livestock production. This is, in part, due to farmed fish and shrimp requiring higher levels of protein and calories in feed compared to chickens, pigs, and cattle. Strategies to address global food security should consider these alternative efficiency measures.