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The Global Demand for Protein Will Require a Sustainable Shift to the Sea

Image credit: Cermaq

By 2050, global demand for protein on our dinner plates is expected to increase by 80 percent over current levels, due to population growth in African countries and increased wealth in Asia.

How are we going to meet this demand? In 2011, 69 percent of the animal protein consumed globally came from land-based sources — and there are fewer and fewer options for expanding production on land.

“Most of the land we think of as farmland is used to grow food for animals, not for people,” says Arlin Wasserman, keynote speaker at the 2015 SeaWeb Seafood Summit and founder of Changing Tastes, a consultancy focused on food sustainability planning.

While feed production to raise cattle, chickens and pigs takes up half the world’s planted acreage, there is a more sustainable option: seafood. Harvested from oceans, rivers and lakes, seafood could replace other animal protein and meet global demand for meat at a fraction of the environmental cost of land-based proteins, according to an analysis developed by Steve Gaines, dean of the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Seafood produces a fraction of beef’s greenhouse gas emissions

The UCSB team compared the impact of different types of protein consumption based on the 2050 projections and found that meeting the world’s protein demands with beef would add the equivalent of 81 percent of the current greenhouse gas emissions of China. The best scenario is filling the food gap with unfed aquaculture, which would add only the equivalent of the UK’s output.

While some farmed seafood species require no feeding, others do consume feed grown on land, which affects demand for soy production. But fish, as water-dwelling, cold-blooded creatures, are extremely efficient in converting their food to protein — protein that’s ideal for people to eat.

“The environmental impacts of seafood production, no matter what form, either wild caught or aquaculture — utilizing best practices — are dramatically better than any of the options on land,” Gaines stated in his presentation to the Seafood Summit.

In a best-case scenario, fish and seafood consumption could nearly double around the world, according to Wasserman. To make that happen, harvesting, marketing and consumption would all have to change.

Many wild-caught fish highly sustainable — and profitable

One of the major opportunities is to increase the productivity of wild-caught fisheries. A study of more than 4,500 fisheries around the world published recently in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences suggests that institutional reforms would raise productivity very quickly at a low cost.

The study, which calculated the possible impact of management and institutional reforms such as aligning harvests with the seasons and incentivizing conservation, found that implementing best practices would boost production by 29 percent and double profits — all while leaving 118 percent more fish in the water. Ensuring that fish populations remain healthy is critical: Prolonged overfishing has depleted about one-third of the world’s commercial fisheries so badly that that they are in decline, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

While the opportunity to increase production has great potential, there are still social and environmental challenges to overcome. Both sides of the seafood industry — aquaculture and wild catch — need to operate even more sustainably, and eliminate human rights abuses and negative ecological impacts.

Cleaning up aquaculture and marketing smarter

“We need to make aquaculture a clean protein, the way the poultry industry has largely transformed itself in the U.S. to be without antibiotics, hormones or colorants, and with feed that is relatively clean and simple,” Wasserman said.

Making seafood a “center of the plate” choice for more people will also require a new narrative for marketing seafood.

“Plant protein and land-based protein industries have done a really good job at comparing themselves to other ingredients. People who raise chicken tell you it’s healthier than beef, people who raise pork tell you it’s the ‘other white meat,’ and people who grow eggs say they are a great source of protein that really doesn’t affect your cholesterol. But the seafood industry just tells you that some fish is better than other fish,” Wasserman said.

The increased demand for sustainable protein means there are opportunities to highlight the environmental advantages of sustainable seafood: a lower carbon footprint, the freeing up of arable land and the preservation of biodiversity in oceans, rivers and lakes.

Complex fish story confuses consumers

But Changing Tastes’ consumer studies have shown that the multiple messages about the complicated sustainability profile of seafood takes this excellent protein source off the table for many.  

“Even the most educated consumers with an interest in food find the whole fish and seafood space confusing,” Wasserman says. “They are wondering whether or not labor was treated well, what chemicals were used, whether this is the right species to eat. The seafood industry needs to get ahead of this discussion or else people will just eat more chicken.”

Increasingly, sustainable business practices are being implemented in seafood around the world with profitable results. In Belize, for example, a pilot program of rights management in a fishery where fishing was once a free-for-all that decimated fish populations, increased the catch for 70 percent of the fishers and fish populations are healthy. Now the program is being implemented in all the country’s fisheries. And the Global Aquaculture Alliance has certified more than 1,000 aquaculture farms around the world, signifying that they are operating sustainably.

The seafood industry can also find opportunities to expand the variety of fish grown and sold. The vast majority — 85 percent — of the species consumed in the U.S. come from just five categories: tuna, shrimp, crab, salmon and whitefish. Expanding the palate for global flavors could encourage more seafood consumption; create demand for nontraditional farmed species such as grouper, pomfret and eel; and encourage farming species that are currently wild-caught.

“If we want to keep eating animal protein, fish and seafood has to be a bigger part of it,” Wasserman said. “And I think it’s an easier change to swallow than moving to insects.”


Ned Daly is program director of SeaWeb, an affiliate of The Ocean Foundation that transforms knowledge into action by shining a spotlight on workable, science-based solutions to the most serious threats facing the ocean.

[Read more about Ned Daly]