If you offer a wealthy elite any fish that is not gathered by depleting the oceans, they will recoil in horror. It is unclear why they recognize that farms are essential for growing vegetables but think farmed fish should only be for the poor. 

The science says otherwise. Aquatic farming -- aquaculture -- can help feed the future global population while substantially reducing one of the biggest environmental impacts of protein production -- land use -- without requiring people to entirely abandon protein as a food source.

A new study from UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) found that the amount of cropland required to support future protein needs with more farmed aquatic animals would be significantly smaller than if terrestrial livestock production met those needs. This research is the first land-use analysis of future food systems to focus on aquaculture -- the world's fastest-growing food sector -- and helps reveal its potential role in conservation and food security. 

quaculture production depends on a number of land-based crops for feed, positioning it uniquely at the interface of aquatic and terrestrial food systems. To understand its land-use implications, the researchers examined how much land would be required to grow the seven most common crops used to feed both terrestrial livestock and farmed fish under three scenarios for the year 2050, synthesizing food production data from the FAO and other scientific sources.

The investigators compared a business-as-usual scenario in which terrestrial meat consumption continues to dominate seafood to two scenarios in which aquaculture meets the additional protein demands of the global population in 2050. They found that replacing the added terrestrial production with aquaculture instead could spare between 729 and 747 million land hectares globally; that's an area twice the size of India, the world's seventh biggest country.

These savings, which also consider the substitution of land required for livestock grazing, would occur whether future aquaculture growth is completely marine-based or a mix of marine and freshwater -- the two aquaculture scenarios the investigators assessed to understand a range of possible futures.

Land savings would be achieved because fish and other aquatic animals are extremely efficient at converting feed to biomass for human consumption. For example, a cow requires anywhere from six to 30-plus pounds of feed to gain one pound of biomass, while most farmed fish need just one to two pounds of feed to do the same. This efficiency translates into much less cropland required to grow feed for the fish that people eat.

These results highlight the role that food choices play in the future of biodiversity, the biggest threat to which is habitat lost to human land use.