It’s not just land. The oceans are getting hotter too. A new report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates how the oceans have been warming at an accelerating rate and discusses the new reality of marine heatwaves.
Meanwhile, global demand for seafood is on the rise. With incomes and populations increasing, we could see as much as a 30 percent increase in demand in the coming decade. Seafood supplies about 17 percent of global animal protein, and some coastal and island regions obtain over 70 percent of their protein from fish. In our current global food system, seafood looms large in conversations around food security.
Is expanding aquaculture the solution?
It makes sense, then, that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is keenly interested in ensuring that our global supply of seafood is able to keep pace with rising demand amid increasingly challenging conditions.
This August, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture released a report called The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This publication is premised on the idea that it is necessary to expand aquaculture production around the world in order to produce more seafood. The report assesses the current status of aquatic genetic resources and finds that many more seafood species are farmed than terrestrial species but that the genetic resources—especially those dedicated to selective breeding—are relatively lacking in the farming of aquatic species relative to those on land.
Plant-based and cultivated seafood offer a better solution.
While increasing the genetic precision and diversity of aquatic species would likely lead to a more stable seafood supply in the near term, this development would not address many of the concerns about the long-term sustainability of the industry. Plant-based and cultivated seafood can achieve the same nutritional and food security outcomes without the environmental, public health, and animal welfare implications of aquaculture. As a global community concerned about feeding a growing population, we should look to advancing the research and development of plant-based and cultivated seafood to both end hunger and protect life below water.
Plant-based seafood refers to products created using plant-derived ingredients to replicate the flavor and texture of seafood. With advanced food science and production techniques, companies are able to turn plant ingredients into end products that create the sensory experience and nutritional profile of conventional seafood. Cultivated seafood (also known as cell-based) is produced by cultivating cells from aquatic animals. Though not yet commercially available, cultivated seafood is identical to conventional seafood at a cellular level—but is free from mercury, heavy metals, and antibiotics.
Plant-based and cultivated seafood can contribute to long-term food security in several key ways:
Plant-based and cultivated seafood will take pressure off of wild fisheries, promoting the recovery of ocean health.
With sufficient share of the market, plant-based and cultivated seafood could have a profound impact on ocean health. Reducing pressure on wild-caught fisheries would enable fish populations to recover, decrease bycatch, mitigate ecosystem damage from industrial fishing methods, and reduce fuel use from large vessels traveling far from coastal areas. With over 800 million people at risk if wild fish populations continue to decline, alleviating the pressure on fisheries is an essential move towards food security.
Plant-based and cultivated seafood will be more resilient in the face of climate change.
Climate change is not only the biggest threat to ocean ecosystems, FAO has also highlighted it as a significant threat to global food security. With both wild fish populations and aquaculture producers facing the challenges of warming waters, a more resilient form of seafood production will be essential to ensuring that people around the world have access to food even as our climate changes. While some new aquaculture production facilities are being sited on land and use tanks, the majority of fish farming still takes place in freshwater and oceans, where the systems are susceptible to changing environmental conditions and warming waters.
Plant-based and cultivated seafood will eventually be more affordable than conventional seafood.
With improved efficiencies in production processes, both plant-based and cultivated seafood have the potential to be available to consumers at a lower price than their conventional counterparts. Both production methods create only the end product that consumers want, solving the so-called “carcass balancing problem.” These products can also be grown more quickly and can therefore be supplied in a more rapid response to demand than their conventional counterparts. Furthermore, the underlying production process for cultivated seafood will be relatively consistent across different species, allowing producers to adjust their supply in response to changing trends in demand.
Alternative seafood is an urgent need and a huge opportunity.
The FAO report concludes, “Urgent action is needed to raise awareness of the value of AqGR and develop or improve cross-sectoral policies and management plans that address AqGR, especially at the level below species.” While the case for improving genetic resources is clear for increasing global aquaculture capacity, aquaculture is not the only seafood production method that can improve global food security while protecting our oceans.
The plant-based and cultivated seafood space is still relatively small. Even within the small but growing U.S. plant-based meat industry itself, plant-based seafood products only make up about 1 percent of the market. Fewer than one quarter of the cultivated meat companies announced have an exclusive focus on seafood. In this young field, even modest levels of additional resources can be massive drivers towards a sustainable, healthy, and just supply of seafood.
To learn more about GFI’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative, check out www.gfi.org/seafood.