Meat alternatives are on the rise. Burger King added the Impossible Burger to its menu in 2019 and McDonald's plans to unveil their McPlant in 2021. Companies have been working on cultured meat outside of animals grown from cell lines. These new products have a range of environmental and health benefits.

Researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara explored the process that cell-based seafood would have to go through to deliver conservation benefits. They found nine distinct steps and noted that cell-based seafood has a long path ahead before it starts relieving pressure on fish stocks in the ocean. A nine-step path from the development of cell-based seafood to conservation benefits. Source: HALPERN ET AL.A nine-step path from the development of cell-based seafood to conservation benefits. Source: HALPERN ET AL.

First, food scientists have to create a viable product and introduce it to the market. Then, the food's price must drop to a level that is competitive with existing seafood on the market. After that, a significant portion of consumers must adopt the new product as a substitute for caught seafood. This is a key and tricky step. These first steps may be enough to guarantee a product’s success, but achieving conservation is harder.

After consumers have adopted the new product, it then needs to drive down the demand for wild-caught seafood. The decline in price must pass through the supply chain to fishermen and decrease fishing efforts to a point that fishing stocks are unable to recover. Finally, the ecological impacts of producing cellular seafood cannot be greater than fishing.

Each of these steps has its own hurdles, most of which would apply to any consumer-driven intervention. The biggest obstacle is getting consumers to adopt cultured seafood over wild-caught seafood. The team says this is an understudied part of the process. Millions of dollars have been dedicated to studying product adoption and diffusion, but these studies have focused primarily only on the adoption process. If a product is to be successful, the entire process must be fully studied.

When looking at the environmental outcomes, the team says that substitution for existing products is just as important as customer adoption. It is a challenge to harness people’s preferences and buying habits to drive change.

A paper on this research was published in Fish and Fisheries.