Alternative proteins are needed to reach net zero emission goals - and that includes alternative seafood
Before becoming involved in the alternative seafood industry, I had a very limited understanding of the relationship between food and climate. There was a vague awareness of the impact of cows on climate change, but as a consumer the main thing I thought I could do was buy an electric vehicle, recycle, and get solar panels.
Fast forward a few years and as the co-founder of Atlantic Fish Co, where we are developing sustainable seafood via cellular agriculture, my knowledge of protein and its impact on climate, sustainability, and animal welfare has evolved. Fortunately, this relationship between animal protein and climate doesn’t seem to be limited to the alt protein industry’s echo chambers. My non-foodtech friends and colleagues are also becoming aware that what we eat is perhaps more important than what we drive in the fight against climate change.
But at the same time, from my perspective, alternative seafood hasn’t resonated as a focus for climate tech investors. Much of the conversation has been on reducing the American obsession with hamburgers. To be clear, beef is the main culprit. And for good reason. It’s well documented that intensive factory farming is atrocious for the climate. It’s also true that seafood, and in particular wild-caught seafood, on average has a lower carbon footprint than terrestrial animal based protein. But the devil is in the details. “The average” masks the reality that many wild-caught fish species have higher GHG emissions / kg than beef.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch in partnership with Dalhousie University has built a seafood carbon emissions tool to see the climate impact of different types of fish, both wild-caught and those raised in aquaculture. They have also included flatfish species that we are pursuing at Atlantic Fish Co - flounder, plaice, turbot, and halibut. Digging into the carbon impact of these wild-caught fish will likely shock many.
As a baseline, let’s start with beef. The carbon impact varies widely from 45-640 CO2-eq / kg protein, depending on the system the cow is raised in (industrial, pastoral, meadow, or culled dairy). But let’s focus on the American industrial beef system with ranges of 45-210 CO2-eq / kg. Contrast these emissions with flatfish, which in many cases are worse than beef in terms of climate impact. They also have a much higher carbon footprint than consuming pork (20-55 CO2-eq / kg) and poultry (10-30 CO2-eq / kg).
DATA: Seafood Emission Tool
Flatfish are not the only group of fish that have a much higher carbon footprint than terrestrial animal protein. This Washington Post data visualization demonstrates snapper and grouper have 3x the greenhouse gas emissions of chicken and 4.7x the greenhouse gas emissions of pork
Why are some species so much more carbon intensive than others?
Fuel cost and cold chain transportation are part of the story as ~80% of seafood in the US is imported. But the fishing methods required to catch certain species is the major variable. Specifically, trawling the ocean floor for flatfish, snapper, and grouper that are all bottom dwellers disrupts the ocean floor, releasing enough CO2 annually to have approximately the same carbon footprint of all global air travel - somewhere between 0.6 to 1.5 gigatons. To put this in another perspective, globally we release 51 gigatons of GHG per year. Trawling is the coal mining of the sea.
Trawling for marine seafood
A proposed solution to the trawling problem is to protect 30% of the world’s ocean. Although well intentioned, is this economically viable or ethical as seafood is the most widely eaten animal protein on earth? 90% of our wild caught fisheries are overfished or harvested at max capacity. There just aren’t enough fish in the ocean, especially if 30% of it is off limits for fishing. Aquaculture is also not a solution, because these carbon intensive fish (and many other species) that people love to eat don’t grow well enough in captivity due to time required to raise them, their food requirements, and difficulty spawning.
We have to produce more seafood, and it can’t come from trawling the ocean. This is where seafood cellular agriculture should enter into the conversation as a climate technology. Scaling this technology can provide clean, sustainable seafood focusing on species that are the most carbon intensive fish to source. Cellular agriculture is the only technology that doesn’t require consumers to transition to an alternative protein that is “like” fish. It is fish.
There are no silver bullets. We have to bring all the tools in the toolbox to the fight against climate change and some technologies will mature before others. Changing what people eat through alternative protein can buy us time until technologies like direct air capture and fusion are ready to scale. But it’s a mistake and a missed opportunity for climate tech investors to overlook the importance of alternative seafood in our battle to save our future.