Research published by the Blue Food Assessment (BFA) – an initiative spearheaded by more than 100 researchers from over 25 scientific institutions – ranks seafood more highly than terrestrial animal proteins in terms of their nutritional benefits and potential for sustainability gains.
The consortium recently published five new peer-reviewed papers that outline opportunities in “blue food” to grow sustainably through bottom-up, system-wide change. The papers are the first in a series produced by the BFA, and jointly led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stanford University and non-profit EAT Forum.
“So often overlooked as a major part of the solution, with these reports, seafood has taken a massive leap into the immensely important debate about our future food systems,” says Renate Larsen, CEO of the Norwegian Seafood Council.
The researchers underscore that the sustainability of blue food consumption will depend critically on which types of fish are eaten and where they are produced. “We are only scratching the surface of how sustainable this can be,” states the BFA.
Seafood demand to double by 2050
One of the papers projects the massive growth of seafood, nearly double that of today by 2050, in demand for aquatic foods, driven primarily by markets in Asia and Africa.
Increase in demand will be largely met by increase in aquaculture rather than capture fisheries.
“But the need for increased consumption of seafood is a global one,” BFA asserts.
The researchers offer a projection of where people stand to lose blue food benefits in a changing climate, and how that risk might be reduced. Risk is determined by the climate hazards every country faces, its dependence on blue food and its vulnerability if the associated benefits disappear.
Capture fisheries, especially in the tropics, were found to face higher climate hazards than aquaculture. Freshwater systems, meanwhile, face higher climate hazards than saltwater systems.
These reports were published shortly after recent analysis found that fishing-related pollution is the most abundant polluter globally, but only in open waters. With the environmental impact of fishing gear coming to light since the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, alternatives to marine-caught produce – like cell-based seafood – have begun dominating public interest.
Acknowledging these concerns, the BFA stresses that optimizing fishing gear, in addition to reducing fuel use and improving fisheries management, represents one of the biggest opportunities for improving the environmental performance of wild catch operations.
Fish against livestock
Across assessed blue foods, farmed seaweeds and bivalves like mussels generate the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, followed by small pelagic capture fisheries like sardines.
The researchers also bring attention to farmed salmon, trout, fed carps, catfish and tilapia, which were found to perform similarly or better than chicken – often considered the most efficient terrestrial animal – across the considered environmental stressors.
From a nutritional standpoint, blue foods on average were argued to have much greater nutritional benefits than terrestrial animal foods.
In the “most comprehensive analysis to date,” the BFA launched the Aquatic Food Composition Database (AFCD) – characterizing levels of hundreds of nutrients across more than 3,750 aquatic species – to provide a more nuanced understanding of the diverse array of blue food and its high nutritional value.
Increased consumption of blue food may consequently reduce diet-related chronic diseases like hypertension, obesity and certain types of cancers, the researchers highlight. Moreover, the majority of assessed seafood was found to offer higher levels of omega 3 (DHA and EPA) and vitamin B12 than farmed land animals.
Modeling results further suggest that increasing the supply of blue foods through sustainable aquaculture investment and better fisheries management could make them more affordable for low-income populations, helping to avoid 166 million micronutrient deficiencies by 2030.
Norwegian industry recognizes its responsibility
Larsen heads the largest generic marketing organization for seafood, the Norwegian Seafood Council, representing the Norwegian seafood industry and origin label Seafood from Norway.
“For Norway as a leading seafood nation, we recognize the great responsibility we have to continue to evolve our sustainable seafood industry. Our aquaculture and fisheries industries are characterized by continuous development, always seeking to find better solutions, not only to increase production, but also to operate more sustainably.”
For three consecutive years, Norwegian salmon farming companies have topped the rankings of the world’s most sustainable protein producers, the Coller FAIRR Protein Index.
Last month, leading European seafood organizations joined forces to lead a four-year project intended to propagate the “most sustainable-farmed salmon” using novel ingredients sourced circularly with a low carbon footprint.
“Our regulatory system also nurtures innovation, and thus our aquaculture industry is at the forefront of sustainable technological advances, something that again benefits the aquaculture industries far beyond the Norwegian waters through knowledge sharing and best practice,” Larsen says.
An ocean of opportunities for bluer diets
A blue foods revolution will require more than just producing more sustainable seafood.
“This insight into the future seafood market complements the strong growth in both fresh and frozen seafood we have seen in the past year,” notes Anne-Kristine Øen, US director for the Norwegian Seafood Council.
“With our commitment to sustainable practices and innovative technologies, Norwegian seafood will grow along with US consumer demand for versatile, healthy seafood.”
“It is not just about production; these reports also highlight the importance of revising dietary guidelines, promoting healthy eating and creating policies incentivizing sustainable consumption as well as production,” Larsen points out.
In the wake of this autumn’s UN Food Systems Summit, Larsen would like to see more progressive policies and visible efforts to promote sustainable seafood consumption. Taxes, subsidies and dietary guidelines that consider environmental performance are recommended as levers to shift industry toward “low-stressor blue foods.”
“It has been frustrating how the dietary battlelines up until now have been very much drawn between meat and plants, leaving the immense potential of the oceans largely overlooked,” Larsen remarks.
“To succeed in this vital shift toward more sustainable, bluer diets, we need action throughout the value chain, from government to producers and retailers and all the way to the consumer,” she maintains.
“It is a massive challenge and literally presents an ocean of opportunities but a task which also comes with great responsibility.”
By Benjamin Ferrer
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