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29 Aug 2023 — China’s recent ban on Japanese seafood imports in light of the Fukushima wastewater release has sent shockwaves through the industry, but plant-based innovators are eyeing an opportunity to tempt Asian consumers away from deep-seated, fish-heavy diets. 
Chinese officials claim the ban is motivated by food safety radiation concerns, although the International Atomic Energy Agency and Japanese government insist the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s wastewater is safe for release into the ocean.
China is Japan’s biggest seafood export market. Local fishing businesses and importers are feeling the strain of the suspension, while consumers can expect stock shortages and price inflations.
“The fish ban – while perhaps being something of a knee-jerk reaction – does create an opportunity for innovators in the plant-based space,” Wikus Engelbrecht, communications manager at ProVeg, tells Food Ingredients First.
“Companies already delivering fish analogs to the Asian market now have more legroom to expand their businesses and offer more product varieties that consumers may sample or even come to rely on as the future of their local fisheries remains uncertain.”
Although plant-based seafood firms are emerging, even in fish-dependent countries like China and Japan, market projections still point to the growing dominance of conventional fisheries. According to the FAO, Asia is projected to make up 70% of global fish consumption by 2030.Man stands staring at freight ship containers.Not only China is rejecting Japanese seafood. According to a survey by Consumers Korea, more than 90% of South Koreans have lost their appetite for Japan’s fish since the wastewater release.
Heightened health fears
The Chinese ban has renewed scrutiny over the general safety of fish and seafood consumption. Although radiation exposure is now a pivotal concern, ProVeg points out that it has been well understood for decades that oceanic pollution like heavy metals has been present in seafood products.
Fish consumption is promoted as a good source of omega 3 fats, which are unsaturated and anti-inflammatory, making them beneficial for heart and brain health. Fish is also regularly touted as a cleaner and healthier protein source than red meat.
But the NGO argues that fish consumption is a leading dietary source of dangerous contaminants. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal and a concern related to fish consumption. A study by the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine, US, found that as much as 84% of the world’s fish contain unsafe levels of this deleterious element.
These pollutants have been linked to poor brain development, liver and immune system damage and skin cancer, according to a study published in the journal Cancer Causes and Control.
Despite the health concerns, ProVeg recognizes that transitioning global consumers to plant-based diets is a considerable challenge, given that meat and fish consumption has long been the norm.
“Japan is a fish-dependent culture in the same manner that the US is a beef-dependent culture,” says Engelbrecht. “Nonetheless, environmental pressures and the mere certitude of sustainability and costs over the next few decades will gradually pressure these markets into following a plant-based diet.”
“Given that the nutrients offered by eating fish can be obtained from other food sources, it might be time to question whether fish should be considered a healthy food source at all.”Woman eats seafood with chopsticks.Despite the Fukushima crisis, Asia's huge demand for seafood continues to grow. Reportedly, Russia aims to increase its fish exports to China amid the ban.
ProVeg suggests obtaining omega 3 from algae or seaweed as well as chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts, instead of fish.
Indeed, a study earlier this year noted that farming more seaweed could unlock the potential to feed the world’s ballooning population, expand fuel production and sustainably feed animals.
Edge of ecological collapse
Scientists have warned that the ocean’s food stocks are heading toward depletion. In 2006, a study of catch data published in the journal Science predicted that if unsustainable fishing practices continue, all the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048.
“This trend inherently signals biodiversity loss and the ecological collapse of the oceans on which we rely for carbon sequestration and roughly half the oxygen production on Earth. The majority of this production is from oceanic plankton, a vital part of the food chain, which is affected by wastewater, toxification and also pollution produced by the fishing industry,” explains Engelbrecht.
“The key issue isn’t that we will merely run out of fish to eat in our attempt to defer the problem to a later date, but the long-term environmental catastrophe that we are creating by the ruination of this consequential ecosystem.”
The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered a major nuclear disaster due to the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The wastewater release process is expected to take around 30 years to complete.
Meanwhile, ProVeg argues that fish farms fail to offer a more sustainable substitute to conventional fishing, as they can produce inordinate amounts of waste and disease spread directly to the surrounding ocean and wild fish populations.Nestlé’s Garden Gourmet brand’s vegan tuna.Alt-fish innovation continues to proliferate, with Nestlé’s Garden Gourmet brand pioneering vegan tuna.
Fishless fish innovation
Against this backdrop, plant-based innovators are continuing to push the boundaries of cruelty-free fish alternatives that offer improved taste and texture. For example, in 2020, Nestlé made its first move into plant-based seafood with an alternative to tuna, followed by shrimp. 
Companies in the US with similar products include Good Catch and New Wave Foods. Hook Foods is available in Europe, while Hong Kong-based OmniFoods serves the Asian market.
Recent innovations also include 3D-printed options, like Steakholder Foods’ fish bioprinting technology, and vegan calamari developed by US-based researchers.
“It is astounding to see how many meat replacement products there are available today compared to over a decade ago, and how restaurants are catering to this growing segment of the population,” adds Engelbrecht.
By Joshua Poole
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