Prime Roots, a Silicon Valley alternative meat startup, recently announced that production has started on several plant-based seafood products to be released this spring. The Peter Thiel backed company follows many other alternative meat companies hyping the environmental benefits of replacing meat with plant-based protein.
There is no question that replacing cow meat with plant alternatives is better for the environment. Red meat production has one of the highest carbon footprints of any food and is the largest driver of deforestation around the world. Eating less cow and more plants is undeniably good.
Though Prime Roots offers land-animal meat alternatives, it has a specific focus on seafood and touts its alternative seafood as a more environmental choice to commercially-caught fish. A Prime Roots publication from last year promoted their seafood products by citing an often-debunked myth that the oceans will run out of fish by 2048 due to overfishing. That is simply not true. Most of the world’s fisheries are sustainable and, on average, scientifically monitored fish populations are healthy and/or improving.
Replacing fish protein with plants is probably worse for the environment
Sustainably-caught fish are a low-impact food by several metrics. They use no fresh water, herbicides, or pesticides, thus avoiding runoff, water pollution, and eutrophication impacts that plague terrestrial agriculture. Land-use change is one of the most devastating impacts of terrestrial agriculture and livestock production. Currently, about half of all arable land on Earth is used to produce food. Replacing protein from wild-caught fisheries with plant-based protein would require additional land about the size of Spain.
Climate change impacts are species-dependent but generally, fisheries have lower carbon footprints than any animal protein and some plant-based proteins.
Prime Roots’ aim
Environmental impacts of food are measured by life-cycle analysis (LCA). As of publication, Prime Roots did not have an LCA of its products available to compare their proteins’ impacts to the animal equivalent. Prime Roots is unique in that it uses fermented mushrooms as its protein base. Fermentation produces carbon dioxide as a waste product so their carbon footprint would probably be higher than other plant-based alternatives like Impossible Foods. However, Prime Roots promotes their seafood products as solutions to commercial overfishing and depleted fish populations, but most of the seafood-alternative products they are developing have few sustainability problems. They plan to offer plant-based alternatives to salmon, lobster, tuna, and shrimp. Nearly every salmon fishery in the world is sustainable; lobster is generally managed well, but does have a higher-than-average carbon footprint; the tuna product would replace albacore and yellowfin tuna in tuna salad and poke (both species are generally above target biomass levels around world), shrimp is highly variable—some species are good and sustainable, others are not. Of their seafood alternative products, shrimp seems to make the most sense (maybe lobster depending on carbon savings), but the others seem to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. I asked why Prime Roots decided to focus on those specific seafood products but have not heard back as of press time.
Prime Roots will do good for the environment if they get people to replace red meat with a plant alternative. However, plant-based seafood alternatives are not the answer to ending overfishing (improving management is); further, using false information to promote their plant-based seafood products is not cool.