Today, there are only two ways to produce seafood: fishermen can catch wild fish, or fish can be farmed in a process called aquaculture. Both methods have many benefits, but also can have adverse impacts on the environment. A growing number of companies are trying to develop alternative ways to produce “seafood,” like “tuna” made by growing tuna cells in a lab.
Will these alternatives make it commercially? If they do, will that result in big environmental benefits or contribute to food security? Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently looked into these questions.
Decades of hard work have resulted in dramatic improvements in fisheries. EDF is making great progress working with partners to reform fisheries management around the world. Fisheries produce about 90 million tons of seafood per year and employ about 40 million people directly — and another 200 million indirectly. Three billion people rely on seafood as their primary source of animal protein and nutrients. Many fishermen are impoverished, live in remote communities that offer few alternative livelihoods and thus rely on fishing as a way of life and an important source of food and income.
The U.S. is now a world leader in sustainable fisheries management — most stocks are no longer overfished, and yields, profits and jobs have all increased in many fisheries while the amount of waste has gone way down. Globally, about 33% of the fisheries that are assessed are overexploited and 60% appear to be producing their maximum sustainable yield. However, the fact that only 7% show potential for increased harvests is alarming given the urgent need to produce even more seafood to feed a hungry world. Also, many fisheries are not yet assessed, but available evidence indicates they are probably not doing very well. Moreover, some fisheries continue to kill thousands of sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, sharks and other wildlife every year.
Aquaculture produces much of the seafood we eat today — about 80 million tons per year — and employs about 200 million people, many of whom rely heavily on their fish, shellfish or seaweed farms for income.
Marine aquaculture is still dominated by seaweed and bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters) that don’t require feeding. These operations produce a lot of food and employ a lot of people. While these kinds of aquaculture can sometimes be benign and can even produce environmental benefits like improving water quality, they can also result in habitat alteration and other impacts.
The growing edge of aquaculture involves farming shrimp, salmon and other species that need to be fed. While there are some sustainable fed aquaculture systems, many contribute to pollution and the spread of parasites and disease. They can also result in massive habitat damage, such as when mangrove forests are cleared to produce shrimp ponds — which are farmed very intensively, heavily polluted — and then abandoned as shrimp farmers go on to clear more mangrove forest for new ponds.
The ecological footprint of fed aquaculture goes beyond pollution, disease and habitat degradation. The largest fisheries in the world catch small fish to convert into fishmeal, which is fed to other fish (in aquaculture facilities) and to livestock. This represents a huge loss in food and nutrition for hungry and malnourished people because it currently takes on average about 1.2 pounds of feed to grow a pound of the farmed salmon in your fish market. Multiply by tens of millions of tons of small fish each year, and that starts to look like a real threat to food security (it must be noted that pigs and other animals require even more feed to produce a pound of meat). Harvesting so many small fish can also harm the wildlife populations that depend on them, like seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals.
Aquaculture production will likely continue to increase for some time, but could decline unless advances in breeding and production methods and a vast expansion of the industry can compensate for the effects of climate change on species productivity.
While progress is being made in reducing the environmental impacts of both fisheries and aquaculture, there is growing interest among scientists, entrepreneurs and investors to produce sustainable alternatives for consumers. Some companies believe that if they can produce an alternative that tastes, looks and feels just like wild or farmed fish, consumers will buy their product instead. They hope this would result in reductions in unsustainable fishing and fish farming, which would in turn reduce the environmental impacts of these activities.
Some of these companies — like New Wave Foods and Impossible Foods — are focused on creating “seafood” from plants. Other companies are trying to manufacture “seafood” by growing fish and shellfish cells in the lab using tissue culture techniques.
- Finless Foods has produced a manufactured cellular fish paste that can be mixed with real fish and other ingredients to make a palatable croquette, and is also working on creating a “bluefin tuna” product.
- Avant Meats has produced cellular “fish maw” and plans to tackle sea cucumber next.
- Wild Type has produced cellular “salmon.”
- Shiok Meats has made pieces of cellular “shrimp” that can be used in dumplings and is developing cellular “lobster” and “crab.”
- Blue Nalu appears to be more focused on creating a generic process capable of producing flesh of a variety of species. It will reportedly soon announce the creation of medallions made from 3D printed yellowtail amberjack cells, and is working on the creation of cellular “orange roughy” and “Patagonian toothfish.”
Environmental impacts of manufactured “seafood” are unclear
There is so much uncertainty about what the manufacturing processes will be like when and if these products become commercially viable that it is impossible to draw clear conclusions about what direct environmental impacts would be. The ecological footprint of producing inputs like culture medium, growth factors, nutrients, batch reactors and scaffolding (for the cells to attach to) could be very high or very low, depending on things like how crops are produced and whether the energy grid remains dominated by fossil fuels or less impactful renewable energy sources dominate.
Fish and shellfish cells appear to be easier to culture than meat cells. However, commercial viability will still depend on significant technical advances that will make it possible to culture seafood cells in large batches and on another set of breakthroughs that will allow manufacturers to process the cells into appealing products.
There is even more uncertainty about indirect ecological impacts, like wild-fish stock recovery and improvements in ecosystem health, because seafood alternatives could disrupt a complex system that includes the entire seafood supply chain. The bigger the disruption, the more uncertain ripple effects there are likely to be. Some of these effects might be environmentally beneficial, but others could harm the environment and communities engaged in fishing and aquaculture. Moreover, the benefits and costs associated with manufactured seafood will probably be distributed unevenly.
Given all the uncertainty, we can only speculate about the impacts of manufactured seafood at this point. However, based on our understanding of how fisheries and seafood supply chains work, we can at least speculate in an informed way.
Let’s say that tens of millions of people buy manufactured seafood and stop buying wild caught and farmed seafood. What might happen to fisheries and aquaculture?
The degree to which manufactured seafood becomes a substitute for traditional seafood or just adds to seafood supply remains a critical question. Many of the large-scale environmental benefits that some manufactured seafood companies hope to generate will depend not only on consumers buying a lot of their product, but also on whether these consumers also stop buying wild-caught or farmed seafood, thus reducing the intensity of fishing and aquaculture, in turn reducing the adverse impacts of these activities. Some consumers — highly concerned about protecting the ocean, but not willing to give up seafood entirely — might make the switch. But seafood demand will probably continue to increase rapidly over the coming decades, so it seems likely that people will just buy more and more seafood of all kinds. If this happens, fishing and aquaculture activities won’t decrease; in fact, they may increase in order to keep up with increasing demand for all types of seafood.
Fisheries and aquaculture produce hundreds of species and manufactured seafood companies will probably only produce a few, at least at first. So a lot of fisheries and aquaculture operations will not be competing in the same markets, and thus are not likely to be affected. Some operations sell into the same markets but have strong marketing resources and social safety nets, and so are likely to be resilient to competition from manufactured seafood. Fishery and aquaculture operations that sell into the same markets but lack marketing resources and social safety nets will be the most vulnerable and potentially suffer the most job and revenue loss.
Unfortunately, the fishery and aquaculture operations that might be the most vulnerable to competition with manufactured seafood could be in less developed countries, and also vulnerable to many other factors, making them less able to cope with job and revenue loss.
Moreover, continued support for ocean health and stewardship is strong within many fishery-dependent communities. At least some of the fishermen and aquaculturalists who could be displaced by manufactured seafood are among our strongest ocean conservation champions. Most of the world’s oceans are impacted by multiple threats, not just fishing and aquaculture. Proponents of coastal development, people who oppose regulating pollution and advocates of developing offshore gas, oil and mineral deposits and so on often wield much more economic and political power than other voices. Fishermen, aquaculturalists, marine tourism operators and others who depend on intact ocean ecosystems for their livelihoods are among the most effective opponents of these threats. Thinning the ranks of environmentally-minded fishermen and aquaculturalists by reducing demand for their products could skew things even more in favor of activities that damage ocean ecosystems.
Manufacturing seafood could reduce fishing and aquaculture impacts. However, many uncertainties remain. The commercial success of manufactured seafood will depend on significant technical advances and consumer preferences, and the ecological footprint of manufacturing seafood will depend on how the sources of energy and water needed are managed. Moreover, for manufactured seafood to benefit ocean ecosystems, consumers would have to substitute it for wild and farmed seafood on a massive scale. Because manufacturing seafood and substitution of wild and farmed seafood at scales large enough to affect ocean ecosystems would represent a major disruption of a complex system, it will likely benefit some people, species and ecosystems and at the same time, harm others. Many ripple effects will probably occur, with unknown impact.
More research and proactive thinking about the potential benefits and risks associated with manufacturing seafood will be necessary, along with transparency and intelligent regulation. The ability to create food from animal cells in a lab is a profound change, which makes it likely that it will have profound effects on natural ecosystems and society. It demands an equally profound level of analysis and planning to help ensure that this innovation enhances our blue planet.