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Aquatic foods offer great untapped potential for providing more sustainable diets, finds new research

Dish counter sells fish fillets and bags of clams.
Image Credit: Friederike Ziegler
First assessment of its kind produces environmental profiles for the full range of aquatic, or blue foods, to help guide more sustainable food production and diets. 

A landmark study has shown significant unfulfilled potential for aquaculture to become more sustainable, adding to the number of species that already place limited pressure on the environment, such as seaweed, bivalves, and certain carps. 

The research, entitled “Environmental performance of blue foods,” was one of five initial scientific papers published as part of the Blue Food Assessment (BFA). 

The authors behind the new paper produced the most standardized assessment of the environmental pressures stemming from blue food production to date, covering nearly three quarters of global production, and drawing on studies collectively reporting data from more than 1,690 fish farms and 1,000 unique fishery records worldwide. 

The paper finds that seaweeds and farmed bivalves, such as mussels and oysters, generate the fewest greenhouse gas and nutrient emissions and use the least land and water. Capture fisheries also result in few nutrient emissions and use limited land and water, but greenhouse gas emissions range from relatively low, such as for sardines and cod, to relatively high for flatfish and lobsters, compared to farmed fish. 

Commonly eaten farmed finfish, such as salmon and carp, outperform other farmed blue foods on several environmental indicators, while most blue foods outperform chicken, which generates similar environmental pressures as tilapia. 

“With demand for blue foods rising around the world, we need a better understanding of the how the environmental pressures compare across this diverse group of foods so we can ensure we are eating not just nutritiously, but also sustainably,” said Jessica A. Gephart, lead author and researcher at American University. 

This new set of standardized metrics can be used to benchmark the environmental impacts of blue foods to steer future production toward lower emissions and resource use. 

The paper also highlighted the significant potential of many subsectors, such as carp and milkfish, to improve their environmental performance through improved farm management, reduced feed conversion ratios, and innovative technological interventions. Capture fisheries also have potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through improved management and optimizing gear types. 

“Most aquaculture systems have not realized the levels of efficiency seen in terrestrial production systems, leaving substantial opportunities for optimization and improvements in efficiency and sustainability,” said Patrik J.G. Henriksson, co-author and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. 

This research filled gaps in previous studies on the environmental stresses associated with food production, which often exclude blue foods, and when blue foods are included, they are typically aggregated, overlooking the vast range of species that belong to blue foods. 

The study will ultimately allow businesses, certifiers, NGOs, and other interested parties, including consumers, to make more informed decisions about how to support sustainable blue foods, helping also to highlight the rich diversity and variety of the blue food sector. 

Notes for editors 

The full list of research papers produced as part of the Blue Food Assessment is available online. A list of the BFA leadership team is also available here

For more information or to arrange interviews, contact c/o Marchmont Communications: 

About the Blue Food Assessment 

The Blue Food Assessment (BFA) is an international joint initiative bringing together over 100 scientists from more than 25 institutions. Led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, the Center for Ocean Solutions and the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, and EAT, the Blue Food Assessment supports decision-makers in evaluating trade-offs and implementing solutions to build healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems.