Vegan sushi

New study published in PNAS confirms that food products produced by animals are much more harmful to the environment than those produced by plants or microorganisms. While this may not come as a surprise to many of us, the sheer scale of the research makes the ecological consequences of our current food systems an increasingly difficult issue to ignore.

Researchers from the University of Oxford assessed the environmental impact of 57,000 food products, including the greenhouse gases emitted by the production of each type of food. But they also looked at land use, water use, and the potential for byproducts to pollute our rivers and lakes with nitrogen.

After crunching the numbers, scientists concluded that many meat alternatives have less than a fifth, and sometimes as little as a tenth, of the environmental impact of their meat counterparts. “We have taken a significant first step towards providing information that could enable an informed decision,” said lead author and postdoctoral researcher Michael Clarke in a statement.

But what about lobster, crab and fish substitutes? In many ways, lab-produced or artificial seafood simply isn’t as advanced (or as common) as other meat substitutes. Researchers are working to correct this.

Sink or swim

The issue of alternative seafood was the focus of a workshop at the Future Food-Tech Alternative Protein Summit in New York this summer – and more than $175 million was invested in alternative seafood companies in 2021. That’s a 92 percent increase compared to 2020, according to a report by the Good Food Institute.

Investors may be spurred by the booming U.S. plant-based foods market, which grew 27 percent in 2020 to reach $7 billion in sales. Most of this market, by the way, was made up of alternative meat and dairy products. At least for now, seafood alternatives do not enjoy the same popularity among consumers.

It’s hard to say exactly why artificial fish hasn’t caught on yet, but some experts think it may be because seafood is seen as a healthy option while meat is not. “Conventional seafood does have a healthy a halo around itself,” Marika Azoff, corporate engagement specialist at the Good Food Institute, said CNBC. “It’s seen as a very healthy food that doctors often tell patients to eat more of.”

For those switching to plant-based foods for health reasons rather than environmental reasons, this makes switching to seafood alternatives less pressing.

A global problem

However, the environmental case for reducing seafood consumption is compelling. Recent research describes the scale of unsustainable fishing practices around the world: as much as 35 percent of all seafood harvested from the world’s waterways never reaches the consumer’s plate, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Indeed, throughout the supply chain, from fishing nets to supermarket shelves, waste is a major problem. In the European Union alone, fishermen threw at least 230,000 tonnes of fresh fish back into the sea in 2019. More than 90 percent of this waste can be attributed to the bottom trawling fishing method, where the seabed is scraped, dredging everything on its way.

While it may take years of research for manufacturers to make plant-based alternatives that truly replicate the taste and texture of their animal counterparts, there is nothing in seafood that makes the process inherently more complicated. And an influx of investment dollars into innovative food tech companies may mean we won’t have to wait long before alternative seafood is brought into the culinary mainstream.

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