man on forklift moving 55-pound sacks of ME-PRO® on a pallet
Prairie AquaTech production technician Cory Dadurand moves 55-pound sacks of ME-PRO® that will be loaded into shipping containers for export. The European companies prefer this type of packaging for the non-GMO product they require.

A highly digestible fish, shrimp and young terrestrial animal feed ingredient produced from South Dakota soybeans is reaching a worldwide market.

Fish farmers and feed mills in Europe can now integrate Prairie AquaTech’s microbially enhanced protein ingredient, known as ME-PRO®, made from non-genetically modified soybeans into their feed formulations. The European market requires a non-GMO product.

“We have the opportunity to sell our product to feed mills in Europe that can formulate feed for Atlantic salmon and other important species, such as sea bass and sea bream,” explained Prairie AquaTech CEO Mark Luecke.

He credits Sue Lancaster, vice president of corporate development and strategy at South Dakota Innovation Partners, for spearheading the process to get approval to sell ME-PRO® in Europe.

The value of the 2019 global aquafeed market was $63.8 billion, according to a Grand View Research Market Analysis Report. That amounts to more than 40 million metric tons of feed, according to a 2020 global feed survey.

High-protein ingredients, such as ME-PRO®, account for about 40% of the feed formulation, or 16 million metric tons, Luecke pointed out. Fishmeal, the aquaculture industry’s gold standard feed ingredient, is one of the primary sources of protein for fish feed, with approximately 4 to 5 million metric tons harvested annually.

Prairie AquaTech is ideally positioned to help fill that protein ingredient gap. Its 45,000-square-foot facility in Volga, South Dakota, can produce 30,000 tons of ME-PRO® annually, which involves processing approximately 2.3 million bushels of soybeans.

Prairie AquaTech currently fills orders for ME-PRO® from six continents and more than a dozen countries including Mexico, Panama, Peru, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands and Indonesia. The non-GMO product is exported primarily to Europe. 

In the future, Luecke said, “We expect to sell as much as 75% of our product to the international market.”

Producing non-GMO ingredient

Luecke emphasized how being in South Dakota and working directly with soybean farmers and South Dakota Soybean Processors makes it possible to have a source of non-GMO soybeans and soybean meal. “This is very unique because a majority of the soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified,” he said.

Farmers sign up to be part of Prairie AquaTech’s certified growers’ network. “We work closely with farmers on seed genetics and agronomics,” he explained. “One of the big things in aquaculture is traceability. We want to be able to tell the story about ME-PRO®, starting from the farmer’s fields—where the ingredient comes from and how it is handled. The marketplace expects this; however, not many ingredient companies have the relationship with their supply chain to do so.

In 2019, Prairie AquaTech received the aquafeed innovation award for ingredients at Victam International, the largest event for the feed and grain processing industries.  In 2020, it was named a finalist for the innovation award from the Global Aquaculture Alliance.

“We are also developing partnerships in different parts of Europe focused on different animal species,” Luecke said, pointing to the use of ME-PRO® in feed for weaned pigs and companion animals, such as dogs and cats. Being able to work with pet food manufacturers in central Europe may then help create opportunities with American companies.

Testing ME-PRO® with shrimp

ME-PRO®’s unique features make it an ideal protein ingredient for shrimp farmers and feed mills, according to Luecke.

One of the challenges for shrimp production is the high mortality rate in the hatcheries. “When they are very young, shrimp are particularly susceptible to diseases,” Luecke explained. Disease challenge studies performed at ShrimpVet in Vietnam show ME-PRO® has a health benefit. “It reduces mortality and increases survivability, which will save shrimp farmers’ money.”

Furthermore, shrimp and fish are often raised in ponds on partially enclosed coastal water bodies known as estuaries. These waters become filled with algal blooms because of high levels of undigested nitrogen and phosphorus.

“The nutrients in ME-PRO® are highly digestible, resulting in a much cleaner aquatic environment,” Luecke said. “One of the things we really focus on is making sure the nutrients are fully digestible and do not end up as waste in the water—clean water is critical to healthy animals and a healthy environment.”

To establish a presence in Latin America, Prairie AquaTech is working with Napoleon Araujo, a Honduran who is involved in every step of the shrimp industry. Araujo raises shrimp and is on the board of directors of Laboratory Unifinca, the largest shrimp hatchery in Central America. He is also president of an aquaculture equipment and feed company which supplies products to shrimp and fish farmers across Central America. 

“We believe this product will help us hold our water quality and increase our production,” Araujo said. His company has formulated shrimp feed using ME-PRO®, completed feeding trials and is now testing the feed on shrimp in earthen grow-out ponds.

In addition, Prairie AquaTech is working with several regional shrimp producers in the U.S. to create test diets that include ME-PRO®.

From SDSU lab to marketplace

A patented microbial process, developed by South Dakota State University Distinguished Professor Bill Gibbons, converts the soybean meal into a highly digestible 70% protein feed ingredient. Gibbons worked with Professor Emeritus Michael Brown, a fisheries expert, to develop and test the formulations on different fish species through funding from the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council and the United Soybean Board.

In 2012, Gibbons and Brown worked with South Dakota Innovation Partners to form Prairie AquaTech. Additional support came from the North Central Sun Grant Initiative, the South Dakota Board of Regents, the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station.

“The vision for developing ME-PRO® was built upon three fundamental values that apply to successful feed ingredients: responsible sourcing, high performance in animals and positive impact on the environment,” Luecke said. “Our partnership with SDSU helps us accomplish what the market is asking for.”

BY CHRISTIE DELFANIAN

COURTESY OF: SDSU Marketing & Communications

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