The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Plant-based seafood startups launch in U.S. & U.K

Protein is the most resource-intense macronutrient to produce, particularly animal protein. Raising livestock like chicken, pigs, and cows requires cleared land for them to live on, fresh water for them to drink, and food & medicine to keep them healthy before they are processed and sent to your local grocery store. But humans need protein and animal protein is the most efficient way to acquire essential amino acids. Most people also find animal protein delicious—data show that as people get wealthier, they consume more meat. Worldwide consumption will continue to increase as incomes in the developing world continue to rise.

And so, shifting diets away from animal products, especially ruminants, to more plant-based ones is a worthwhile effort to reduce the environmental impacts of food production. A growing enterprise are meat alternatives that are made from plants, but taste like meat. Impossible Foods is one of the most well-known of these startups—they were notably funded by Bill Gates and their “Impossible Burger” can be found in thousands of restaurants across the U.S. For the record, I regularly order the Impossible Burger; it tastes like the real thing (delicious) and you should try one if you get the chance.

Replacing livestock protein with plant-based alternatives is undoubtedly good for the planet… but what about seafood? Fish are already the lowest-impact animal protein, would replacing seafood with plant-based alternatives be better for the planet? This answer is ‘probably not’ for a variety of reasons. For starters, some seafood products, namely farmed bivalves and wild-caught pelagics, are the best food you can eat for the environment regardless of macronutrient or animal vs. plant. The other main consideration when comparing seafood and other kinds of food is land use. Terrestrial food production occupies over half of the arable land on Earth (that ratio is only growing). Wild-caught seafood provides 80 million metric tons of food without any land use. To replace that protein with plant-based alternatives would cost the planet about 500,000 km2 of land—an area of the size of Spain. That’s a lot of forest and biodiversity to lose.

Plant-based seafood?

With that preface out of the way, three companies have emerged with plans to introduce plant-based seafood products. Ocean Hugger Foods recently rebranded/relaunched Ahimi, a raw tuna alternative made out of tomatoes, while another company, Good Catch, debuted a variety of ‘fish-free’ seafood products last month. Both can only be found in select Whole Foods stores in the U.S. Across the pond, a company called Ima will begin selling vegan salmon sushi in London. These new food products could be great for vegans, vegetarians, and people with fish or shellfish allergies who want to safely enjoy seafood flavors, but many of the environmental benefits touted by the companies is greenwashing. If these products replaced livestock meat, they would definitely reduce environmental impact—but replacing seafood probably isn’t.

Further, much of the press and marketing materials selling these seafood alternatives perpetuate misinformation (re: lie) about the current state of wild-caught fish.

For example, Ocean Hugger Foods’s slogan is “Seafood is awesome, extinction is not”—ironic since terrestrial agriculture has caused the most amount of extinctions and the largest loss of biodiversity since the last asteroid hit Earth. In recorded history, only two marine fish have gone extinct; both were small, endemic species lost to El Niño events, not fishing. Ocean Hugger also claim that 90% of large fish in the ocean have disappeared—this is patently false.

Good Catch’s marketing materials contained several errors, however, to their credit, they scrubbed their website of them (aside from a deeply hidden blog on their website that perpetuates the ‘all fish will disappear by 2048’ myth).

In an interview with Food Navigator promoting her brand, Ima founder Jessica Chan said, “Our oceans and fish levels are depleting at such a rapid rate, it’s just not sustainable for us to continue eating fish sushi.” This is wrong; global catch has been stable for decades and fishery management has generally been improving.

Companies spreading misinformation to sell product is nothing new, but it feels especially objectionable when a business does it to prey on people’s good-intentions. It is possible that Ocean Hugger, Good Catch, and Ima did not consult with any fishery scientists before developing their marketing strategy—luckily, I wrote a whole guide to understanding the science of sustainable seafood that they are free to use in any way they see fit.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Max, in your first paragraph you mention that eating animals for protein is the “most efficient” way of getting protein. It’s my understanding that eating animals is actually the least efficient method of getting protein (or any nutrient) based solely on feed conversion rates (FCR). For example, chickens and fish are considered to be the most efficient animals at converting feed into usable protein, but chickens’ FCR is about 2.5 and fish range from 1.5-2.5. Plant protein on the other hand doesn’t technically have an FCR since they eat sunlight and dirt, essentially. 🙂 My point here is that eating a wide variety of plant foods (beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, veggies and fruit) guarantees we get all essential amino acids we need. It’s a myth that “plant proteins are incomplete,” and as a food system mythbuster, you would do well to stop perpetuating that one.

    I think it’s misleading to imply that humans need animal protein or that animal protein is superior when, from a land use perspective and nutrient perspective, it is not.

    In the last section you mention that “terrestrial agriculture has caused the most amount of extinctions and the largest loss of biodiversity since the last asteroid hit Earth,” but it would have been helpful to note that the FAO reports 80% of terrestrial agriculture is devoted to growing plant foods to feed to animals and then for animals to graze directly. So, again, animal foods and animal grazing are the leading source of deforestation and loss of biodiversity—not plant foods to feed humans.

    You mentioned we would need space the size of Spain to source enough plant protein to replace fish protein, but simply reallocating even a fraction of existing arable land (currently dedicated to animal feed and grazing) to grow food crops for direct human consumption would meet this hypothetical protein need, while also giving the fish a break.

    As a voice of reason in the global discussion of food choice and sustainability, you are perfectly positioned to help people understand that it is time for our food system to evolve to a largely plant based diet. Despite some wonky marketing copy, plant based seafood companies are part of the solution, not the problem.

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