Nutreco Young Researchers' Prize: meet this year's winner Agboola Jeleel Opeyemi

Congratulations on winning first place in this year’s Young Researchers’ Prize, Jeleel! Can you tell us a bit more about your winning project, what inspired you to research this area of agricultural science and what problems it solves?

 In Nigeria, I started studying animal science with a special focus on poultry nutrition but less on nutrition and feeding of fish species. However, while using the prestigious Erasmus Mundus scholarship to study for a dual master's degree at Wageningen University & Research (The Netherlands) and Aarhus University(Denmark), I made a conscious decision to specialize in #aquaculture because of its enormous potential to safeguard food security and ensure shared prosperity around the world. Aquaculture is the fastest food-producing sector and plays a significant role in eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty around the world, particularly in low-income countries like Nigeria, where I come from.  

 Despite its enormous potential, the aquaculture industry is faced with different challenges – one of which is the ongoing interest in novel ingredients with potential to be used in fish feeds. This is because there are serious sustainability concerns regarding the continuous use of marine resources (fish meal and fish oil) and plant-based ingredients in fish feeds. So, when the opportunity came to explore this area of research during my PhD, I quickly grabbed it with both hands. The original focus of my PhD work was to document the nutritional and functional values of yeasts produced from Norwegian wood sugars as an alternative to conventional ingredients in aquafeeds. My research was part of Foods of Norway (a centre for research-based innovation) at NMBU - Norwegian University of Life Sciences, aiming to create value creation in Norwegian aquaculture by developing novel feed ingredients from blue and green biomass.     

Norway is the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in the world, and only about 8% of the ingredients used in Norwegian aquaculture are sourced locally – the rest are imported – which is not only expensive but contributes significantly to the environmental credentials of fish farms. What’s more, only about 3% of Norwegian land is cultivable, implying that the use of locally produced plant-based ingredients in Norwegian aquaculture is near impossible. However, Norway has a huge forestry industry that generates tonnes of timber and wood waste every year. For my PhD, I wanted to uncover a way to turn low-value forestry materials into fish feed and work towards alleviating the Norwegian fish industry’s reliance on imported feed ingredients.

 By converting wood biomass into sugar, which was then used as food for yeast fermentation, we created a yeast-based nutritional ingredient with health-beneficial values for farmed fish. My submission for the Young Researchers’ Prize highlighted the impact of my PhD project. When I read over the submission, I knew my research could help address the three challenges this year's prize set out to solve: meeting the demand for high-quality proteins through novel ingredients, bringing antimicrobial resistance in livestock under control and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

 Following feeding experiments with Atlantic salmon (in both freshwater and seawater stage), it was clear through my studies that the yeast could be used to replace the conventional ingredients in fish feeds without compromising the fish growth. Additionally, the fish fed with the yeast-based feed saw improved overall health, which can reduce the need for antibiotics use in fish farming. They also coped much better in stressful scenarios, like being moved from freshwater to seawater. This implies that the inclusion of yeast-based ingredients in fish feeds could help to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks or plant-based products commonly used in fish feeds – leaving more of these products for human consumption.


What were the biggest challenges you had to navigate in your research?

 Producing and processing enough yeast for the fish experiments was one of the challenges faced during my research. And then there’s the challenge of the inclusion level to use and how to incorporate the yeasts into the fish feeds. We received a great deal of support from the industrial partners involved in the project and leveraged their expertise to overcome these challenges. More so, these partners are working on scaling up this innovation, so that the yeast can be available in commercial quantities needed for large-scale fish production. My PhD fell right in the middle of COVID, and this significantly limited access to the fish facility, the laboratory and other important resources needed to successful achieve the objective set out for the PhD. Thanks to the incredible support I received from my supervisor and my colleagues, I was able to continue my research during COVID restrictions – in fact, two of my fish experiments were conducted in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.


How did you come across Nutreco’s Young Researchers’ Prize?

I first learnt about the prize just as I was starting my PhD back in 2019. Despite only being in my first year, I applied anyway but was unsuccessful because I had only generated preliminary results from my research. I saw the opening of this year’s prize advertised on LinkedIn, and, having gone far in my research with publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at conferences to show for it, I decided to apply again, which I’m very glad I did! It does go to show that even if you get dealt setbacks, persistence and determination, more often than not, prevail!


What are your plans for the future, and how do you plan to use the €12,000 prize money?

Having graduated, I’m currently looking to transition into the aquaculture industry. Over the past few months, I’ve been expanding my network and trying to speak to as many industry professionals as possible. The thought of putting my years of hard work and research into practice and being part of the real-life implementation of industry-leading research and innovation is really exciting – and everything I’ve been working towards. Gaining this real-world experience is crucial in understanding how research goes from an idea to an experiment to being rolled out in actual aquaculture businesses across the world.

I have a few plans for the prize money over the next few months – I’m keen to keep growing my network and equip myself with additional skills needed to succeed in today’s industry, so I plan to do some learning-based travel to attend industry events and visit other researcher facilities and groups in the aquaculture science space. I’m also looking into my personal development and expanding my expertise – whether that be through a short course or additional qualification.


What would you say to young researchers who are considering applying for next year’s prize?

I will greatly encourage anyone considering applying to do so. Having also applied in 2019, I’m a prime example of no matter the challenge, you can achieve anything you put your mind to if you work hard and believe in yourself.