Aquaculture is controversial, but it could be the only way to produce protein for the world's rapidly growing population.

By Food & Wine
Updated May 24, 2017
fish with garlic
Credit: © Anson Smart

Fish farms have earned their fair share of critics, many of whom charge that the operations are unsustainable, inhumane and produce seafood that's less nutritious than its wild equivalent. However, new research from the University of California Santa Barbara suggests that despite aquaculture's bad rep, it could be the only way to feed world's rapidly growing population.

In the report, marine biology professor Steve Gaines suggests that due to overuse of the world's arable lands and wild fishing areas, the only method to turn to for the amount of animal protein required to feed the booming population is aquaculture. Gaines, who is a lead investigator for the university's sustainable fisheries group, says that despite the current problems with fish farming, population and meat consumption are both on the rise, and aquaculture might very well be the only solution.

According to USA Today, over the next 34 years approximately 2.4 billion additional people will be added to the world's current population of 7.5 billion. And, while the population skyrockets, the land used to grow food and raise animals will continue to deteriorate. World's sustainable ocean-based fisheries, even at maximum output, could only take on between 1-5 percent of the increased protein demand, leaving many families unfed.

Gaines suggests that aquaculture—which produces 15 percent of protein across the globe currently—could be the world's best hope for feeding billions of new mouths. And, thankfully, new innovations could improve the healthfulness, sustainability and efficiency of these operations.

For example, yeast and algae-based feeds currently in development could replace the omega 3 fatty acids in today's fish food, reducing costs and making the feed completely vegetarian. And then there's eco-advocate Bren Smith's vertical fish farming model, which aims to create an ocean-like atmosphere without any fertilizer or pesticides.

"The potential is for aquaculture to be a highly sustainable, low-impact protein," Gaines says of the strides being taken towards improving aquaculture as a whole.

Currently, Asia leads the way when it comes to fish farming, producing over 70 percent of the world's seafood from aquaculture, but soon—as the growing population makes it more and more a necessity—other nations could emphasize aquaculture in a similar way. "In aquaculture there are hundreds of different species, the diversity of options is so much richer than from the land," Gaines says of fish farming's advantage over traditional land-based animal rearing. If Gaines and his fellow aquaculture advocates are right, you might be eating sustainable farmed fish in the near future.