The bugle call switching to plant-based diets has reverberated throughout the food industry. Plant-based nuggets, sausages and patties are now more common on menus to meet broader dietary needs and perhaps to help curb carnivorous appetites in the name of reducing emissions.
Another option that hasn’t resonated the same way yet is switching to fish and seafood. A Swedish article published in 2019 explained how a seafood-based diet can be at the crossroads of human and environmental health.
A new paper in Nature Communications Earth and Environment takes this earlier study one step further. It demonstrates that fish and seafood are the most efficient vessels for essential nutrients that humans need.
What’s new – The study shows that seafood and fish are healthier than farmed meats and that fish production emits less greenhouse gases than farmed animals. The document also details the number of kilograms of greenhouse gases emitted for each gram of protein, each omega-3 fatty acid and each vitamin and mineral in a serving of seafood.
“Going beyond protein into this much more nuanced space is a frontier that was necessary for us,” said Peter Tyedmers, co-author and professor of environmental studies at Dalhousie University. Reverse.
The seafood in question:
- Salmonids (eg, salmon, trout)
- Shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab)
- Cephalopods (squid)
- White fish (catfish, hake, cod, tilapia)
- Bivalves (mussels, scallops, oysters)
- Large pelagics (tuna, albacore)
- Small pelagics (Anchovies, mackerel, herring)
These are just a sample of what is in the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers, but they represent a significant portion of the fish and seafood market. Wild-caught salmonids had the value the highest nutrient for the least greenhouse gas emissions, and shellfish were the least nutritious but produced the most emissions.
What’s more, they analyzed 21 beneficial nutrients in all these creatures, plus two harmful ones (sodium and saturated fat) to best calculate what each kilogram of CO2 released into the atmosphere is feeding us. They conclude that the environmental (and economic) cost of seafood is much lower than that of meat.
Why is it important – Seeing the consequences of climate change in real time inspires us to do everything possible to create a more sustainable world – at least to limit further damage if we cannot reverse what has been done. Raising land animals for food takes a heavy toll on the planet; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found in 2013 that meat and dairy products create 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, behind energy, public transport and the making.
The study focuses on carbon emissions from production rather than transportation. Indeed, raising cattle and other red meat animals is a drain on resources and a waste of carbon emissions.
Tyedmers also believes that vegetarianism and veganism at all levels is not the answer to curbing climate change. He points out that there is another way to package nutrients in a climate-friendly way while reducing or forgoing red meat. Co-author Elinor Hallström, a food researcher at Sweden’s RISE Research Institute, says their findings indicate that compared to meat, seafood has more to offer in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions than of nutrients.
Dig into the details — This question could get infinitely more granular. Is wild fish better than farmed fish? Is local always better than imported?
“If we reduce this to fishing versus farming or carp versus salmon, we’ve missed the problem,” Tyedmers says. He points out that the search for the most perfect solution will inevitably lead to infighting in the industry, a conclusion he says is backed up by his 20 years in the sustainable seafood business.
He acknowledges that these data are imperfect. It does not answer all the questions, nor does it prescribe a solution for every community in the world. As detailed as their formula is, there are of course populations that do not eat fish or seafood or live in a place where fish thrive.
And after – While the answer is always more research, Tyedmars’ most immediate hope is that consumers at least reduce their consumption of red meat, opting for salmon instead.
He also wants to continue studying production methods to maximize efficiency. Nutritional analysis, he says, is just the start.
“We need to massively de-escalate our consumption of ruminants, and here are some good alternatives.”