A detrimental disconnect between farming land and sea


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
November 13, 2014

During this Tuesday’s SeafoodSource webinar on aquaculture, “Aquaculture’s Prominent Role in Feeding a Growing Global Population,” attendees saw some statistics that should get consumers thinking about farmed fish more positively.

Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability science at the New England Aquarium and research faculty at University of Massachusetts at Boston, expanded on the notion that farmed fish are far more efficient at converting feed into edible animal protein. According to Tlusty’s research, an average of 1.1 pounds of feed is needed to grow 1 pound of body mass in a farm-raised fish (he used salmon as the example). That number balloons to 1.7 pounds for broiler chickens, 2.9 pounds for hogs and a stunning 6.8 pounds for cattle.

Throw greenhouse gas emissions into the equation when comparing the performances of aquatic versus land-based animal protein production, and fish becomes an even smarter selection. Cattle production releases about seven times as much carbon dioxide into the environment as does farmed salmon; it also results in more than four times the nitrogen outputs and 2.5 times as much phosphorous. In this area, fish also compares favorably against poultry and pork.

Fish is simply the smarter choice for the future, given the growing protein needs for the planet and its rapidly escalating population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Aquaculture, as we know, is not without its issues — disease, a finite resource for fish feed, investment capital and consumer education are all legitimate obstacles — but it holds far more promise for a sustainable future. Somehow, aquaculture seems to face far more scrutiny than livestock production from environmental groups and less acceptance from consumers. Why the disconnect?

That’s the first question I asked Neil Sims, co-founder of Kampachi Farms. Sims, who founded Kona Blue Water Farms more than a decade ago, listed a number of reasons, one of which is largely rooted in myth.

“The development of aquaculture happened at a moment in history when there’s more corporatization, a lot more commercialization, globalization, and it hit scale faster [than terrestrial agriculture]. The image that people have of terrestrial agriculture is of the family farm. It’s a myth — most of the food now is produced by large agribusiness corporations. But people still cling to that myth,” said Sims. “Aquaculture had to transition from the original small-scale systems more rapidly to larger companies that are driving the innovation and are able to achieve the efficiencies. It’s not a bad thing that you have large companies involved as they can invest more in the R&D and in things like the certification programs. It’s not a bad thing but it’s perceived that way.”

“Aquaculture does have a different lens through which it is assessed,” said Tlusty, adding that, in food systems in general, “everything stands to be improved.”

All food production impacts the environment, it’s the bottom line. The challenge facing the world’s food system is scaling up production without causing more harm to the environment — it’s the mantra of today’s aquaculture industry. Sims believes that farming the oceans is the best solution. Not only for the environment, but for our health as well.

“We need to be eating more seafood. If we’re having 3 billion people moving up to the middle class between now and 2050, if those people are eating beef and pork, the planet is going to be in a lot of trouble. That middle class needs to be eating seafood. Aquaculture is the only way we can scale to meet that growing demand.”

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