April 30 (UPI) -- As population growth accelerates in much of the world, demands for meat are putting added pressure on natural resources. New research suggests some of the pressure can be relieved by fish farming.
Scientists with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimate an additional 10 billion people will be hungry for protein by 2050 and that a 52 percent increase in animal production will be required to meet their needs.
According to the latest calculations by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, if those protein needs are met with an increase in farmed aquatic animals, humans can conserve land. Recent studies have suggested as much as 75 percent of the planet's land and soil has already been significantly degraded.
"While aquaculture can add some pressure because -- ultimately -- it is a food production system, our study demonstrates the relative amount is minuscule compared to terrestrially farmed animals," Halley Froehlich, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, said in a news release. "Aquaculture is not going to be the main strain on future crop feed and land use. It is -- and will likely continue to be -- terrestrial livestock."
Froehlich and her colleagues calculated the land that would be required to house and feed the amount of both aquatic farmed animals and livestock to meet the protein needs of 10 billion people. Both fish and livestock require grains, the growth of which requires land. But because fish farming systems are much more efficient at converting feed into biomass for human consumption, aquatic farming had a much smaller footprint on land resources.
Researchers detailed their calculations in a new paper published Monday in the journal PNAS.
"The expansion of agriculture across the world is driving most species extinctions and the dramatic loss of ecosystems," said Claire Runge, a research scientist at the Arctic University of Norway. "This is only going to increase into the future. Aquaculture offers one way to reduce some of this pressure on our natural landscapes, wild places and wildlife."
The study's authors acknowledge that aquaculture has downsides, as all food systems offer tradeoffs, but that if implemented strategically, fish farming can help relieve growing pressures on land resources.
"Aquaculture does not have to be this massive burden on land or in the water, especially if farms are sited strategically and there are incentives for management that move it toward sustainable siting and feed practices," Froehlich said. "The potential is ripe to really do it right."