(CN) – Fish farms could be the key factor in providing enough protein for a growing global population, according to a study released on Monday.
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that the amount of cropland required to meet the dietary requirements of a growing population would be significantly reduced if more investment is made in fish farms or aquaculture.
An increase in aquaculture operations can positively impact food security for the global population, particularly those most vulnerable to economic changes while also helping the environment by cutting down on deforestation and improving other land use scenarios, the study says.
“While aquaculture can add some pressure because – ultimately – it is a food production system, our study demonstrates the relative amount is minuscule compared to terrestrially farmed animals,” said lead author Halley Froehlich, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. “Aquaculture is not going to be the main strain on future crop feed and land use. It is – and will likely continue to be – terrestrial livestock.”
The study is premised on the steady growth of global population that several estimates believe will surpass 10 billion people by 2050. To meet the dietary needs of that entire population, scientists estimate animal production will need to grow by 52 percent from its current level.
Meeting production demands without creating widespread environmental damage will be one of the more critical problems confronting the modern world.
Froehlich and other researchers believe pushing animal production from the terrestrial-based model into the rivers, lake and oceans represents at least one method of reducing land use impacts and attendant environmental degradation.
But it’s not a panacea.
Like terrestrial-based animal production, aquaculture relies on farm-grown crops for feed, thus creating land use impacts.
For the purposes of the study, researchers studied how much land would be required to grow the seven most popular crops used in animal production in terrestrial and aquatic settings and comparing three different scenarios.
The findings indicate that when comparing the status quo model where terrestrial production dominates seafood with two other scenarios where aquaculture takes up a large share of animal production, as much as 740 million hectares of land could be spared globally from agricultural development.
The land use savings would be banked regardless of whether the aquacultural operations were freshwater based or took place in the ocean, which accounted for the two different seafood-dominated scenarios explored by researchers.
The land savings are not only dependent on reducing grazing land, but also because fish and other seafood are more efficient in converting feed into biomass. For instance, one cow requires anywhere from six to 30 pounds of feed for it to gain a single pound of biomass.
Compare that with fish, which need only about one or two pounds of feed to gain the same amount.
“Aquaculture does not have to be this massive burden on land or in the water, especially if farms are sited strategically and there are incentives for management that move it toward sustainable siting and feed practices,” Froehlich said. “The potential is ripe to really do it right.”
But apart from sustainable food systems, a switch to seafood would also have an immediate impact on terrestrial biodiversity, as habitat loss, species extinction and destruction of ecosystems are tied to the demand to diminish wild spaces in favor of conversion to either crop fields or grazing lands for cattle or other livestock.
“The expansion of agriculture across the world is driving most species extinctions and the dramatic loss of ecosystems,” said co-author Claire Runge, a research scientist at University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway. “This is only going to increase into the future. Aquaculture offers one way to reduce some of this pressure on our natural landscapes, wild places and wildlife.”