Skretting Innovation Director Alex Obach: Phyto-tech is a gamechanger for aquaculture

"We bring very specific problems, and we then spend many hours discussing them and ways in which the plant kingdom can bring solutions."
Skretting Innovation Director Alex Obach
Skretting Innovation Director Alex Obach | Photo courtesy of Alex Obach
6 Min

Amersfoort, the Netherlands-based animal nutrition company Nutreco recently opened its Garden of the Future facility in Thurgau, Switzerland, marking what the company is calling a new era for the health and performance of aquaculture species and systems, according to Alex Obach, the innovation director at feed producer Skretting, which is owned by Nutreco.

As the new hub for the animal nutrition group’s phytotechnology program, the facility is responsible for the creation of “phyto-complex” solutions, which are plants or plant metabolites that, when added to feed, have physiological impacts that support the performance, health, and welfare of aquatic and other animals. 

These phyto-complexes are currently being developed by the garden’s discovery team in direct response to existing market issues, with many of these solutions generated from plants that have never been cultivated before.

“Everything starts with a problem; for us, it’s the problems that our customers – the fish and shrimp farmers – have. We bring this information to our colleagues in Nutreco and ask them for a list of specific plants that can help solve these explicit problems, whether that’s a disease, inflammation, or bad performance. We bring very specific problems, and we then spend many hours discussing them and ways in which the plant kingdom can bring solutions,” Obach said.

Using the subsequent compiled shortlist of plant candidates aimed at solving a particular issue, Skretting teams conduct tests to evaluate their effectiveness in fish diets, he said.

“When we get that desired effect, we come back to the garden and the discovery team and ask them to come up with whatever quantity we need of that plant. It’s a completely different way of working because we’ve never had this level of intentional, targeted plant innovation before,” he said.

Obach was involved in the program’s creation from the ground up, including advising on the technology platforms that Skretting wanted the facility to focus on – principally phytogenics and biotechnology. The work began almost five years ago.

“There was a vision in Nutreco at that time to do something in the area of so-called novel additives. Things had happened at a startup level, with investments made in some interesting biotech solutions,” he said, “The same thing had happened in phytogenics, but most of the photogenic companies had already been bought up by bigger companies and [subsequently] disappeared. We saw there was a space and a lot of potential with phytogenics and with plants.”

After conducting this market research, it became clear that Skretting and Nutreco couldn’t achieve the vision with existing resources, according to Obach.

“At Skretting, we’re nerds; we like nutrition, physiology, and the health of shrimp and fish, but while we have been working quite successfully with plants and putting plant extracts in our solutions for 20 years, including functional diets like Protec and Lorica, we knew almost nothing about them,” he said. “And, we learned we were doing much the same as the other companies by focusing on these plant extracts.”

Skretting Phytotechnology Program Director Bernd Büter, Skretting Discovery Director Karin Berger, and Nutreco Chief Science Officer David Bravo have “changed the game" since starting in their positions, Obach said.

“What we have here [in the program] are some of the world’s leading experts on plants. They also have a very good understanding of the physiology of humans and of animals. For me, it’s the perfect match,” he said. “In the past, we were pretty much relying on what our plant suppliers were offering to us and then testing that. Now, when we hit on a problem, I can ask the guys here what can we do in this situation – maybe an inflammatory problem of a type of tissue in a type of organ. It’s a fantastic way of working, and through Nutreco, we can bring the scale needed to deliver these solutions.”

Skretting and Nutreco have also learned through its trials with plant experimentation that ... 

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