Future of food production lies in sea, says UCSB marine ecologist

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Marine ecologist Steve Gaines from UC Santa Barbara gives a lecture at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium on Dec. 4 about the future of food consumption and production, and how its future lies with sustainable seafood.

Denny Cristales/Signal Tribune

As worldwide consumption is projected to double by the year 2050, the future of food production lies in the sea, with climate change and sustainable fisheries playing key roles, said marine ecologist Steve Gaines of UC Santa Barbara in a Dec. 4 lecture at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.

Food consumption has nearly doubled already since the 1980s, Gaines said. And with history potentially repeating itself, places for production are sparse. In his presentation, he showcased a graph that detailed how portions of land feasible for food production are already being utilized.

There is simply no other place to go but the sea, he said.

“Food impacts us in so many positive ways,” Gaines said. “It keeps us alive. It’s something we celebrate holidays with, with special kinds of food. We have really important connections to food in our everyday lives. But food also connects us to the environment. It connects us that way by some of the impacts that it takes to produce food.”

Pinpointing the cause
A component in finding a solution to the food-production problem is looking at how much food is actually consumed worldwide, he said. Gaines explored this increased food consumption by first highlighting the main source of food intake– animal protein.

The total amount of protein consumption on the planet has been changing, he said. Along with that increase has been seafood, such as wild cod, which has gone from 27 percent of worldwide consumption to 31 percent from 1980 to 2015.

All the numbers are projected to go up even further, Gaines said, and correlated with that increase is the growing population of people.

It’s an obvious connection, Gaines said, but it’s one he put into perspective through the use of two global maps that were proportional to population and wealth, respectively, and compared statistics of the present day to the potential growth in 2050.

The standouts were the continents of Africa and Asia. Africa is projected to have the most significant population increase within the next 30-plus years. But there is another factor beyond just population growth. Gaines said that as people become wealthier, they have a tendency to consume more animal protein than is required for the average diet.

That’s where Asia comes in. Gaines said that although there will be an increase of growth and wealth in the developed world, the big area that is relevant is the continent of Asia, particularly China and India.

The substantial growth of people trying to get out of the lowest levels of poverty and moving into more middle-class incomes will lead to that dramatic increase of animal protein, Gaines said.

“The growth in wealth in the developing world is going to be a major driver of increased consumption of animal protein,” he said. “But this brings up some major questions: Where is that food going to come from? And what does that mean for the planet?”

A greenhouse problem
Gaines’s conclusion on producing this extra food on land was that all options were “pretty disastrous.” The reason is that with the exception of some parts of the United States and some portions of Europe, most of the areas on land in terms of agricultural production are already being used.

He also mentioned the possibility of destroying parts of natural wildlife, such as tropical forests and the Amazon, in favor of places for agriculture. However, the idea is to also implement new food-production strategies while eliminating environmental costs.

That’s where climate change and greenhouse gases come into play, as well. Gaines said that although the first things that come to mind regarding carbon emissions, a component of climate change, are usually cars or heating a building, the underestimated factor in these emissions is indeed food.

Eighteen percent of the current emission of greenhouse gases comes from livestock production, Gaines said. Another 12 percent comes from agriculture. Combining that with land use, transportation and other resources utilized to maintain food production, the whole amounts to about one-third of the total output of greenhouse gases.

Different sources of food influence that emission output, he said. Beef and goat are higher on the list than chicken and pigs, for instance.

That’s where the ocean is different, Gaines said. On land, production is based on how fast everything is being produced. At sea, it has everything to do with the way animals are caught, and that also provides a varied sense on how each method is affecting greenhouse emissions.

The average output of those emissions in the ocean from gathering food is not nearly as dramatic as those of land production. This is why Gaines is stressing the sustainability of wild fisheries– places dedicated to raising or harvesting fish.

“If we can get more production out of wild fisheries, then we actually meet a greater fraction of that growth in demand with food that is not going to have anywhere near as big of an environmental impact,” Gaines said.

A solution at sea
Gaines added that getting fisheries to their maximum production would be an ideal approach and a major step. It’s just as little as two years ago that their production value has halved in comparison to where it was a few decades ago.

Fixing the world’s fisheries would boost production by eight million metric tons of fish fillets.
The contribution that it would yield for the projected food demand of the future is not a lot, however. It would only account for eight percent of what would be required, Gaines said.

“I’m not trying to trivialize the importance of doing this, because if we don’t fix these fisheries, the contribution of the ocean is going to go down,” he said. “And in every way, this is beneficial from an environmental standpoint.”

The solution then becomes aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish and molluscs. Gaines said its efficiency stems from its limited area use and environmentally stable approach.

His example was that animal protein, such as goats or cows, would require an area of 85 percent of South America to meet projected food needs in the future.

In comparison, at its most efficient, aquaculture cultivation with muscles utilizes an area less than the shallow region of New Zealand.

Gaines believes that this is the future of food production.

“We’ve got this big challenge coming,” he said. “We need to figure out a way to interact with the sea that maximizes the level of production we can get with minimal kinds of impact. But if we do that, the net effects for both people and the planet will be hugely positive.” ✦

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