A Boost for the Blue Economy: The Essentialism of Alternative Seafood

Scaling plant-based and cultivated seafood could help satisfy growing global demand while creating resilient jobs and livelihoods that minimize the climate and biodiversity impacts of seafood consumption.

UNDERSTANDING CLIMATE RISKS AND CHOICES

Like terrestrial meat, demand for seafood is growing worldwide. From 2020 to 2030, global seafood production is expected to grow by 14%. By 2050, the projection is another 80%. Neither wild-capture fishing nor fish farming can scale to meet this trajectory without threatening the health of the ocean, rivers, and other aquatic ecosystems. While the limits and impacts of conventional seafood production are well-documented, the complex connections between climate and seafood are coming into sharper and sobering focus.

Multiple NGOs are zeroing in, pointing to the need to reconcile growing seafood demand and food security concerns with climate goals, ocean health, and biodiversity recovery. As the World Wildlife Fund notes in its recent Climate change is coming for seafood supply chains article, “There’s never been a moment with more opportunity for transformation in seafood supply chains than the one that exists right now.” This timely WWF piece details the many challenges facing fisheries and aquaculture farms in the face of climate change, with threats not only to biodiversity but also to livelihoods and food security for billions of people. Today, more than 90 percent of the world’s marine food supplies are at risk, as detailed in Blue Foods Assessment’s “Vulnerability of Blue Foods to Human-induced Environmental Change,” published in Nature Sustainability earlier this year. At the regional level, the impacts of climate change on vulnerable coastal communities are also becoming clearer, with the recent assessment of the $2.4 billion economic impact that climate change could have on Louisiana’s storied fishing culture and identity.

Like with terrestrial animal agriculture, conventional seafood production is both a driver of climate change and increasingly at risk because of it. Among the documented impacts happening now are the shifting distributions of fish populations due to rising ocean temperatures, with many ranges shifting toward the poles and tropical waters becoming depleted. While the research landscape for assessing the emission-related impacts of both conventional and alternative seafood is still in its infancy (a ripe area of research for the scientific and policy communities), current studies indicate that plant-based and cultivated products can be transformative strategies for developing a resilient, climate-smart seafood supply chain and blue economy.

A few insights from a recent GFIE White Paper: Building climate policy momentum for alternative seafood identifies:

  • Plant-based seafood and cultivated seafood produced with renewable energy are predicted to have lower emissions footprints than most farmed and wild-capture seafood. Plant-based alternatives have a GHG footprint one-third less than conventionally farmed fish and three-quarters less than farmed crustaceans; and,
  • Renewable energy is critical to realizing the climate benefits of cultivated meat and seafood. Life-cycle assessments project that emissions from cultivated meat produced with renewable energy will be in the lower range of aquaculture emissions and less than the emissions of most wild capture. Further, cultivated seafood is expected to require even less energy than cultivated red meat and poultry, in large part because seafood can be cultivated at lower temperatures than terrestrial meats.

PROTECTING BIODIVERSITY BY DIVERSIFYING SEAFOOD

In addition to climate considerations, alternative seafood offers important biodiversity benefits relative to conventional seafood production.

The rising global demand for seafood is stretching the production capacity of our ocean and coasts beyond sustainable limits and driving an unprecedented decline in global marine biodiversity. While there have been improvements to the sustainability of wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture, we need new, diversified, and more efficient forms of seafood production to meet current and future demand that enable, not hinder, species recovery.

Producing meat or seafood directly from plants or animal cells does exactly this. Alternative seafood enables more efficient conversion of inputs and other resources into final products, which translates to more food with fewer resources and lower environmental impact. With lower resource requirements, alternative proteins offer a unique opportunity to mitigate aquatic biodiversity loss and planetary health risks at numerous levels:

  • The protection and recovery of marine species: Shifting demand to alternatives can help governments conserve and rebuild overfished stocks while also reducing by-catch and discards;
  • Decreased habitat loss, pollutants, and land use: Alternative proteins’ lower land requirements and elimination of ocean floor disruptions can steeply mitigate habitat transformation and loss; and,
  • Lower use of antibiotics: Alternative proteins eliminate or sharply reduce antibiotic use in food production, helping safeguard microbial biodiversity and slowing the development of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

SIGNALS OF A SEA CHANGE AHEAD—ALL HANDS-ON DECK

Today, alternative seafood represents less than one percent of retail seafood sales in the U.S. But still waters run deep, and in the U.S. and around the world, scientists, start-ups, industry leaders, investors, and policymakers are working to diversify seafood production as a key adaptation strategy and are advancing alternative seafood in ways that will help it scale.

Researchers in more than 12 countries are working on science-driven solutions to technical challenges, and hundreds of companies spread across the globe are innovating on taste and nutrition. Consumer interest in alternative seafood products that can match conventional seafood on taste and price – and even exceed conventional seafood on health and nutrition (no mercury/PCBs, more omega-3s) – indicates a large runway for these foods to continue growing.

Of all the players in the ecosystem, policymakers and NGOs – especially those working at the intersection of food and agriculture, climate, biodiversity, global health, and food security – are perhaps the best positioned to drive change and progress. Plant-based and cultivated seafood has the potential to provide healthy, geographically distributed, and nutritionally dense protein while relieving pressure on ocean ecosystems in the face of human population growth. To realize the potential climate and biodiversity benefits of alternative seafood, policymakers and ocean advocates can incorporate alternative proteins as a key strategy for building a far more sustainable seafood supply chain. Specifically, they can:

  • Drive public investment in open-access research to advance alternative seafood: Research should focus on alternative seafood reaching taste and price parity with conventional seafood and optimizing personal and public health benefits. Channeling public support for alternative seafood pairs nicely with initiatives to protect biodiversity and ecosystems, freeing up lands and waters for restoration, and can also be a component of food justice, creating good-paying jobs and climate-resilient careers;
  • Ensure a clear, efficient regulatory process: Alternative seafood should not be subject to regulatory requirements that exceed those of conventional proteins. Level the playing field for alternative seafood producers via a fair, competitive marketplace with equitable labeling laws for all types of protein, including alternative meat and seafood;
  • Support commercialization efforts and collaborate with the domestic agriculture sector to grow the bioeconomy with alternative seafood: For example, supporting plant-based seafood producers could provide new markets for the domestic growers of pulses and grains commonly used as alternative seafood ingredients. With the right policy and pricing structures in place, farmers can receive greater income by producing these ingredients relative to their current income growing commodity crops; and,
  • Increase investment in research that quantifies how various forms of seafood production impact and are impacted by climate: Research should focus on sequestration, GHG releases, and warming potential, and support inclusive, full-cost carbon accounting tools for Nationally Determined Contributions, the country-by-country efforts to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Break down scientific silos around seafood and include human well-being in climate reporting.

A BLUER BLUE ECONOMY IS IN OUR GRASP

Advancing alternative seafood is a key companion strategy for any initiative aimed at restoring ocean health and resilience.

U.S. members of the Congressional Sanctuaries Caucus introduced a resolution to make October 23rd the first-ever National Marine Sanctuaries Day. Currently, six proposed sites are undergoing sanctuary designation, including the first-ever sanctuary nominated by a tribe – the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary located off the central California coast. Such designations not only protect marine wildlife (80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found in the ocean), they also strengthen climate resiliency and coastal economies.

Making seafood in ways that are not reliant on extraction from coastal and open ocean ecosystems complements other nature-positive solutions like sanctuary expansion and can further enable ocean recovery around the world.

Opportunities abound for policymakers, NGOs, philanthropists, and others working at the intersection of climate, biodiversity, and agriculture to leverage alternative seafood as a solution that simultaneously advances food security, science-driven ocean management, emissions reductions, and ecosystem health. Such support will be essential to realizing the potential of cultivated and plant-based seafood as accessible, affordable, and sustainable alternatives that can help bring to life a blue economy that works for all.