A boost for the blue economy: The essentialism of alternative seafood

Scaling plant-based and cultivated seafood could help satisfy growing global demand while creating resilient jobs and livelihoods that minimize the climate and biodiversity impacts of seafood consumption. If you’re seeking blue food solutions, alt seafood is quite a catch.
An image of deep sea fish

Minding the gap

“Our past, our present, and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depend on what we do now.”

Dr. Sylvia Earle, American marine biologist, oceanographer, explorer, author, founder of Mission Blue, and National Geographic Explorer-at-Large

Earle, known affectionately by her peers as “Her Deepness” after becoming the first person to walk solo on the ocean floor in 1979, knows a thing or two about pressure. Her legendary walk was under a quarter-mile of water (that’s 600 pounds of pressure per square inch!) In the years since, she’s channeled her life and career to ocean advocacy, even joining us on the Good Food Conference stage a few years back to sound the alarm around disappearing fish stocks, the growing pressures placed on ocean ecosystems by the commercial fishing industry, and the urgent need for alternatives.   

This month, we’re channeling her spirit and resolve as we release a pair of alternative seafood-focused white papers—Building climate policy momentum for alternative seafood and New blue foods for biodiversity: The promise of alternative seafood. While efficiencies and environmental mitigation measures of conventional fisheries and aquaculture operations continue to incrementally improve, the climate and biodiversity math of scaling these two forms of seafood production at the pace needed to meet growing demand doesn’t pencil out. Together, these deep-dive reports make clear the essential role that alternative seafood—seafood made from plants, fermentation-derived, or cultivated from cells—can play in sustainably and efficiently filling the gap while also reducing seafood sector emissions and benefitting biodiversity.

Knowing that the blue economy is on deck at COP28 and other global gatherings on the horizon, we’re serving up alternative seafood as the missing piece of the sustainable seafood puzzle. Alternative seafood can plug in as a much-needed companion strategy to conventional production improvements and ocean restoration, capable of meeting growing demand while supporting resilient jobs and livelihoods that enable overfished ecosystems to recover and thrive.   

Understanding climate risks and choices

Like terrestrial meat, demand for seafood is growing worldwide. From 2020 to 2030, global seafood production is expected to grow by 14 percent. By 2050, the projection is another 80 percent. Neither wild-capture fishing nor fish farming can scale to meet this trajectory without threatening the health of the ocean, rivers, and other aquatic ecosystems. While the limits and impacts of conventional seafood production are well-documented, the complex connections between climate and seafood are coming into sharper and sobering focus. 

Multiple NGOs are zeroing in, pointing to the need to reconcile growing seafood demand and food security concerns with climate goals, ocean health, and biodiversity recovery. As the World Wildlife Fund notes in its recent Climate change is coming for seafood supply chains article, “There’s never been a moment with more opportunity for transformation in seafood supply chains than the one that exists right now.” This timely WWF piece details the many challenges facing fisheries and aquaculture farms in the face of climate change, with threats not only to biodiversity but also to livelihoods and food security for billions of people. Today, more than 90 percent of the world’s marine food supplies are at risk, as detailed in Blue Food Assessment’s “Vulnerability of Blue Foods to Human-induced Environmental Change,” published in Nature Sustainability earlier this year. At the regional level, the impacts of climate change on vulnerable coastal communities are also becoming more clear, as laid out in this Times-Picayune’s piece that calls out the $2.4 billion economic impact that climate change could have on Louisiana’s storied fishing culture and identity. 

Like with terrestrial animal agriculture, conventional seafood production is both a driver of climate change and increasingly at risk because of it. Among the documented impacts happening now are the shifting distributions of fish populations due to rising ocean temperatures, with many ranges shifting toward the poles and tropical waters becoming depleted. While the research landscape for assessing the emission-related impacts of both conventional and alternative seafood is still in its infancy (a ripe area of research for the scientific and policy communities), current studies indicate that plant-based and cultivated products can be transformative strategies for developing a resilient, climate-smart seafood supply chain and blue economy. A few insights from Building climate policy momentum for alternative seafood:

  • Plant-based seafood and cultivated seafood produced with renewable energy are predicted to have lower emissions footprints than most farmed and wild-capture seafood. Plant-based alternatives have a GHG footprint one-third less than conventionally farmed fish and three-quarters less than farmed crustaceans.
  • Renewable energy is critical to realizing the climate benefits of cultivated meat and seafood. Life-cycle assessments project that emissions from cultivated meat produced with renewable energy will be in the lower range of aquaculture emissions and less than the emissions of most wild capture. Further, cultivated seafood is expected to require even less energy than cultivated red meat and poultry, in large part because seafood can be cultivated at lower temperatures than terrestrial meats.

Summoning our collective will to rapidly reduce emissions from the seafood sector, and all other sectors, of course, is key. Scaling alternative seafood is a here-and-now solution that can be a win-win-win for climate, ecosystems, and livelihoods. 

Protecting biodiversity by diversifying seafood

In addition to climate considerations, alternative seafood offers important biodiversity benefits relative to conventional seafood production. 

The rising global demand for seafood is stretching the production capacity of our ocean and coasts beyond sustainable limits and driving an unprecedented decline in global marine biodiversity. While there have been improvements to the sustainability of wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture, we need new, diversified, and more efficient forms of seafood production to meet current and future demand that enable, not hinder, species recovery. 

Producing meat or seafood directly from plants or animal cells does exactly this. Alternative seafood enables more efficient conversion of inputs and other resources into final products, which translates to more food with fewer resources and lower environmental impact. With lower resource requirements, alternative proteins offer a unique opportunity to mitigate aquatic biodiversity loss and planetary health risks at numerous levels:

  • The protection and recovery of marine species: Shifting demand to alternatives can help governments conserve and rebuild overfished stocks while also reducing bycatch and discards.
  • Decreased habitat loss, pollutants, and land use: Alternative proteins’ lower land requirements and elimination of ocean floor disruptions can steeply mitigate habitat transformation and loss.
  • Lower use of antibiotics: Alternative proteins eliminate or sharply reduce antibiotic use in food production, helping safeguard microbial biodiversity and slowing the development of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Meet an alt seafood innovator

We sat down with fishmonger, trained chef, and owner of Fishtown Seafood Bryan Szeliga, who is reinventing the seafood retail experience by providing consumers with high-quality, plant-based seafood options that rival the taste, texture, and price point of conventional seafood.

Signals of a sea change ahead—all hands on deck

Today, alternative seafood represents less than one percent of retail seafood sales in the U.S. But still waters run deep, and in the U.S. and around the world, scientists, startups, industry leaders, investors, and policymakers are working to diversify seafood production as a key adaptation strategy and are advancing alternative seafood in ways that will help it scale.

Conventional seafood companies such as Bumble Bee and Thai Union are diversifying their seafood portfolios by investing in and producing alternative seafood. Researchers in more than 12 countries are working on science-driven solutions to technical challenges, and hundreds of companies spread across the globe are innovating on taste and nutrition. Consumer interest in alternative seafood products that can match conventional seafood on taste and price—and even exceed conventional seafood on health and nutrition (no mercury/PCBs, more omega-3s)—indicates a large runway for these foods to continue growing. Check out our latest State of the Industry Reports for more proof points of the impressive and much-needed progress underway.

Of all the players in the ecosystem, policymakers and NGOs—especially those working at the intersection of food and agriculture, climate, biodiversity, global health, and food security—are perhaps the best positioned to drive change and progress. Plant-based and cultivated seafood has the potential to provide healthy, geographically distributed, and nutritionally dense protein while relieving pressure on ocean ecosystems in the face of human population growth. To realize the potential climate and biodiversity benefits of alternative seafood, policymakers and ocean advocates can incorporate alternative proteins as a key strategy for building a far more sustainable seafood supply chain. Specifically, they can: 

  • Drive public investment in open-access research to advance alternative seafood. Research should focus on alternative seafood reaching taste and price parity with conventional seafood and optimizing personal and public health benefits. Channeling public support for alternative seafood pairs nicely with initiatives to protect biodiversity and ecosystems, freeing up lands and waters for restoration, and can also be a component of food justice, creating good-paying jobs and climate-resilient careers.  
  • Ensure a clear, efficient regulatory process. Alternative seafood should not be subject to regulatory requirements that exceed those of conventional proteins. Level the playing field for alternative seafood producers via a fair, competitive marketplace with equitable labeling laws for all types of protein, including alternative meat and seafood.
  • Support commercialization efforts and collaborate with the domestic agriculture sector to grow the bioeconomy with alternative seafood. For example, supporting plant-based seafood producers could provide new markets for the domestic growers of pulses and grains commonly used as alternative seafood ingredients. With the right policy and pricing structures in place, farmers can receive greater income by producing these ingredients relative to their current income growing commodity crops.
  • Increase investment in research that quantifies how various forms of seafood production impact and are impacted by climate. Research should focus on sequestration, GHG releases, and warming potential, and support inclusive, full-cost carbon accounting tools for Nationally Determined Contributions, the country-by-country efforts to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Break down scientific silos around seafood and include human well-being in climate reporting.

A bluer blue economy is in our grasp

Advancing alternative seafood is a key companion strategy for any initiative aimed at restoring ocean health and resilience.

U.S. members of the Congressional Sanctuaries Caucus introduced a resolution to make October 23rd the first-ever National Marine Sanctuaries Day. Currently, six proposed sites are undergoing sanctuary designation, including the first-ever sanctuary nominated by a tribe—the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary located off the central California coast. Such designations not only protect marine wildlife (80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found in the ocean), they also strengthen climate resiliency and coastal economies.

Making seafood in ways that are not reliant on extraction from coastal and open ocean ecosystems complements other nature-positive solutions like sanctuary expansion and can further enable ocean recovery around the world. 

Opportunities abound for policymakers, NGOs, philanthropists, and others working at the intersection of climate, biodiversity, and agriculture to leverage alternative seafood as a solution that simultaneously advances food security, science-driven ocean management, emissions reductions, and ecosystem health. Such support will be essential to realizing the potential of cultivated and plant-based seafood as accessible, affordable, and sustainable alternatives that can help bring to life a blue economy that works for all. 

GFI at work

Advancing alternative seafood at the pace and scale needed to meet global demand, dramatically slash emissions, and enable ecosystems to recover is not inevitable. Our scientists, industry experts, and policy professionals are focused on accelerating research, development, and the path to competitive commercialization for this promising solution. 

Among the most powerful ways we do this is through convening and connecting people from across the still-just-getting-started field of alt proteins. Just last month at the 2023 Good Food Conference, our SciTech team hosted a GFI Research Grant Program grantee networking lunch, which fostered new connections between researchers across different alternative protein production platforms. Also during GFC, our Corporate Engagement team hosted an alternative protein lunch and several tasting tours that brought together more than 35 chefs, corporate stakeholders, and investors to sample products from 10 different alternative protein companies. Participants from Incrivel/JBS, Griffith Foods, Conagra, JP Morgan, Sumitomo, and more had the opportunity to try Wildtype’s cultivated salmon. On both fronts, these shared experiences netted new energy and enthusiasm for sustainable proteins—critical factors for future success. 

Another strategic way we work is by catalyzing research and development to improve taste, nutrition,  price, and production capacity of plant-based, fermentation-derived, and cultivated meat and seafood products. With the support of several generous donors, our Research Grant Program was launched in 2018 to advance foundational, open-access research and create a thriving ecosystem around this game-changing field. Each year since, this program has provided opportunities for researchers to apply for rapidly deployed funding. This year’s call for proposals prioritized the need to develop novel tools aimed at improving seafood cell cultures, a key strategy for scaling cultivated seafood. In an emerging field like alternative proteins, open-access research has an outsized catalytic effect, serving to generate preliminary data that stimulates follow-on investment from conventional funding mechanisms.

A school of fish in the ocean

Made possible by you

This pair of alternative seafood white papers—as well as all of GFI’s work to advance science, spur policy and market momentum, and convene and catalyze the field—is made possible by gifts and grants from our global family of donors.


Sheila voss


Sheila Voss oversees GFI’s strategic awareness and action campaigns, data-driven storytelling, and communications-related partnerships. Areas of expertise: plant science and sustainability, agricultural education, biodiversity and climate change messaging.