Seafood and Sustainable Protein Consumption

The purpose of this module is to help the seafood industry communicate about the value of sustainable seafood and understand the communications issues related to seafood in the broader context of the protein market. It would be impossible to provide an educational overview of this enormous issue—that isn’t our intention—but we have tried to provide information that will help you communicate the importance of sustainable seafood for the future sustainability of food production.

There is growing recognition in the scientific community and in the marketplace that seafood has a better health and sustainability profile compared to other animal based proteins. And as Arlin Wasserman discusses in his interview below, the proteins that make up the plate of the future—and what and how much protein will be included—will be determined in the next 4 to 10 years. How seafood positions itself in the broader protein market, and how the seafood industry can communicate responsibly about seafood in the broader context, will have significant implications for seafood and the sustainability of food production.

Along with a growth in consumption, what we eat is changing as well. We are beginning to see a shift away from meat protein toward more consumption of whole grains, beans, and other plant-based protein. Where seafood fits into the future dinner plate is very much undecided—perhaps more so than any other protein or food group.

Where seafood fits in

One of the biggest factors in determining seafood’s role in future protein consumption will be the sustainability of seafood and the industry’s ability to deliver and market a sustainable, responsible product. In the next two to four years consumers, restaurants and the food industry will be making decisions that will predict much of our future consumption.

Key takeaways

Why seafood is the better choice

Producing protein is an inherently messy business. There are social and environmental issues associated with almost everything we eat. But, there are some factors that make seafood a “better” option in terms of sustainability. Perhaps most importantly for the future of our planet, seafood production contributes less greenhouse gas emissions than other land-based meat production, and in some cases even vegetable production.

Roughly 1/3 of CO2 emissions come from a combination of livestock, agriculture and the associated transportation. With seafood, there are some inherently good aspects that make it a lower-impact choice. For example, being cold-blooded and buoyant means fish expend less energy “running their engine” so seafood has a very efficient feed to protein production ratio. Oysters and mussels actually provide a benefit to the ecosystems in which they live (including farmed) by filtrating the water.

Along with seafood’s low ecological impact, aquaculture and wild caught fisheries also provide communities with local sources of protein in geographies where other protein production can be difficult. The sustainability and food security benefits of seafood make it a better choice than land-based options, but seafood does have many of the same challenges in production as other proteins including forced labor, community rights issues, illegal fishing, and obviously climate impacts.

If seafood is to leverage its strong environmental profile into a larger portion of the future dinner plate it will need to continue the successful efforts to address the social and environmental impacts of seafood capture production and processing.

Opportunities or challenges?

Two significant opportunities or challenges that will greatly influence seafood’s ability to capture a larger share of the dinner plate in the future include:

  • Can we get millennials to eat fish?
  • Does health become a positive aspect of seafood’s profile?

Guiding the seafood consumers of the future: UMass Dining

Over the past 10 years, the goal of UMass Dining has been to prepare delicious meals that feature local, healthy, and sustainable food products and lead the food service industry in innovation and environment practices. As the largest campus dining operation in the nation, they have an opportunity to take the lead and set a good example with young consumers. Approxiamately 70% of their seafood now comes from Alaska including salmon, cod, haddock and surimi, while 20% comes from New England. A few years ago UMass began sourcing from their regional food system. In addition to lobster, they source underutilized seafood like red fish, pollock, flounder and dogfish shark to support local fisheries…

Demystifying seafood’s health profile

The double-edged sword of seafood health—the importance of omega 3’s for health, coupled with the over-generalized significance of mercury and other toxins to a person’s diet—creates a challenge for the seafood industry. Health should be a major part of seafood’s branding in the protein market, but it has become a qualified statement in an unqualified marketplace. The truth is, for women of childbearing age, it is essential that their diets are rich and inclusive of seafood, but they should avoid a small group of species high in mercury. As Barton Seaver lamented in a recent interview, “unfortunately only half that message got out.” The red flag was raised and more than just vulnerable communities saw it, and this has resulted in lingering confusion and apprehension around seafood generally.

Seafood and human health

Why did the Knights Templar, a religious military order holding sway for nearly two centuries during the Middle Ages, far outlive their contemporaries? Research supports the hypothesis that the answer was in their diet rich in seafood. The possible benefits of the Mediterranean-type diet enjoyed by the knights were demonstrated in the ground-breaking Seven Countries Study that established a clear correlation between dietary levels of saturated fats, blood cholesterol, and heart attacks. In a world where nearly 30% of humanity is suffering from malnutrition and over 70% of the planet is covered with water, aquatic foods represent an essential component of the global food basket to improve the nutrition, health, and well being of all peoples.

Making the good better

Despite the health and sustainability benefits seafood provides, there are still some on-the-water problems with seafood production, capture and processing which become in-the-market challenges for “Brand Seafood.” These challenges in seafood production include illegal fishing, human rights, bycatch, and ecosystem impacts that can undermine seafood’s ability to capture a greater share of the plate.

The good news is the seafood industry has been making great strides on these issues. While there is still a great deal of work to do to make seafood a truly clean protein, there are a number of opportunities to communicate with consumers, customers, and stakeholders about the success stories the industry and their partners have had through efforts like certification, FIPS, and collaboration. Along with the success on the water, these stories illustrate that sustainable seafood is an issue where consumers and stakeholders can have a positive impact on issues from human rights to habitat conservation simply through their purchasing.

Learn more about progress in the sustainable seafood movement from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation’s 2017 report, “Progress Toward Sustainable Seafood – By the Numbers.”

Key takeaways:

  • The US and Europe have made significant improvements toward sustainability through certification, FIPs, corporate commitments and policy
  • Asia is a long way behind and represents the majority of global fish caught/produced, however a large portion of Asian fisheries are engaged in FIPs and working toward improving
  • Focus on IUU through traceability and transparency initiatives and policy measures is stemming the tide of human rights abuses in global seafood, but there is still a lot of work to do to.

Science you can use

The future sustainability of protein markets

Concern over future food and nutritional security is rapidly rising on the global agenda amidst studies showing a growing agricultural shortfall. Simply, crop yields are far from increasing at the rates needed to meet projected demands for 2050. Indeed, an estimated 60% more food will be required by mid-century to feed a projected 9.6 or so billion people, assuming a continuing increase in demand for meat, dairy products and vegetable oils and no significant reduction in food waste. This will have to be accomplished amidst a changing climate, growing competition for natural resources, such as water, energy and land, and biodiversity loss due to land use practices, among numerous other challenges.

Furthermore, there is widespread agreement that the global food system is itself one of the most important drivers of detrimental change to the Earth system.At the same time, the increasing adoption of Western diets – typically centered around meat and dairy products and highly processed foods – is the main factor fueling a crisis of another sort: a global surge in obesity rates and non-communicable diseases.

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