The road to sustainable, mass-produced cellular seafood
Researchers have mapped out the events required for cell-based seafood to deliver environmental benefits.
The team from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found nine distinct steps that need to be achieved for the novel technology to deliver conservation targets.
The authors contend that cell-based seafood faces a long, narrow path towards recovering fish stocks in the ocean, with success ultimately determined by the complex interplay of behavioural, economic and ecological factors.
“At this point, a significant proportion of consumers have to adopt the new product as a substitute for traditional seafood. This is a key step, and it’s particularly tricky to pull off,” he said.
The researchers said the first four steps might be sufficient for the success of a new product, but achieving conservation outcomes is a much longer process.
The new product must drive down demand for wild-caught seafood, and the decline in price must pass through a complicated supply chain to fishers.
The drop in price then needs to decrease fishing efforts, which may or may not enable fish stocks to recover. Finally, the ecological impacts of producing cellular seafood can’t be more significant than those of fishing, the researchers said.
Substituting old for new
Each of these steps brings with it a variety of hurdles, perhaps none harder than getting consumers to adopt cultured seafood instead of buying wild-caught fish.
“Convincing people to take on something new and leave behind something old is a huge challenge. It is an unstudied part of the process,” Halpern said.
Co-author Jason Maier said millions of dollars have gone towards studying product adoption and diffusion. Researchers pore over the factors that influence consumers’ willingness to try, and ultimately take up, a new product.
“The ability to sample the product, its relative advantage over the item it intends to replace and how well it suits consumer habits and values all affect the likelihood it will be adopted,” he said.
Maier said previous research has primarily focused on only the adoption process rather than substituting a new product for an old one.
For instance, many believed that farm-raised fish could release pressure on wild stocks. Instead, researchers have seen massive increases in seafood consumption with little direct evidence that aquaculture has reduced fishing pressure.
A narrow road
The researchers found it is a narrow road to get from creating this technology to more fish in the ocean.
“There are a lot of steps that have to happen, and the path gets narrower and narrower as you go along,” Halpern said.
“So it’s not impossible, but it is difficult for many reasons to get a conservation outcome, in terms of more fish in the ocean, from this cell-based seafood.”
Most of these hurdles apply to any consumer-driven intervention in the ocean. It’s challenging to harness people’s preferences and their buying habits to drive change.
“Trying to use consumer behaviour as a way to influence the ocean requires a lot more steps than top-down approaches like regulations,” said co-author Heather Lahr.
Society also needs to weigh the costs and impacts of other conservation measures against new technologies like cultured seafood, she said.
“Strategies like fishery management and marine reserves have already proven their worth,” Lahr said.
A different ballgame
While the technologies for culturing beef and swordfish may be similar, the context could scarcely be less alike.
Seafood comes from hundreds of species with different life histories, habitats and diets, Lahr said. What’s more, consumers tend to group many species under a single culinary experience.
“For instance, when consumers eat a fish taco, they are expecting a white, flaky fish, which could be anything from farm-raised tilapia to locally sourced halibut,” Lahr said.
Compare that with beef, which primarily comes from one species: Bos taurus, the European taurine cattle.
The researchers also said, unlike terrestrial meats, seafood still comes primarily from the wild. Humans have less control over fish stocks than livestock, and fishing activity responds to consumer, economic and environmental changes differently than ranching. Fishers also fall under different regulations than farmers.
There’s also a mismatch between the fish that could benefit most from this technology and the species that the industry is focusing on. Lahr said that financially significant stocks and popular seafood items, like tuna and salmon, are typically already well managed.
Halpern said the stocks where the need is greatest are not actually where the clean seafood technology, the cell-based seafood companies, are focusing their efforts.
“This is because there’s not much money in those species.”
For instance, fish like anchovies and sardines used for feed and oil may be able to benefit more from cell-based technologies, but currently, the price point for these species is too low to make the investment worthwhile.
The road ahead
This paper is one of several upcoming studies exploring the conservation benefits of cell-based seafood. The team will further investigate the possibilities of demand-driven conservation interventions and review the impacts that the rise of aquaculture has had on fisheries and wild stocks. They also plan to dive further into understanding how and why consumers change their behaviour when confronted with new products. The initiative is part of a joint project between NCEAS and emLab.
Halpern said if society applies its resources towards developing technology to address a challenge, it will likely find one.
“But whether the technology will actually achieve the intended outcome depends on so many other steps,” he said.
“So we need to think carefully through all those steps before counting on any particular solution to deliver the outcome we hope for.”
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