Diverseafood: Evaluating the potential of multi-trophic aquaculture to improve nutrition and ecosystem sustainability in the UK

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Mechanical Aerospace and Civil Eng


Seafood production through aquaculture is in a unique position to contribute to healthy and sustainable diets and help to tackle the rising burden of chronic noncommunicable diseases and malnutrition in the UK, if environmental sustainability challenges and barriers to consumption are adequately addressed. Diversifying production, especially towards species of higher environmental sustainability, such as seaweed, mussels and sea urchins, and in particular through Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA), can serve a significant purpose towards bioremediation, while also allowing for product diversification and increased public acceptability of the industry. However, continued challenges to the commercial implementation of IMTA have hindered investment. This project will address barriers to the diversification of aquaculture systems in the UK by evaluating the contribution of IMTA to the nutritional value of aquaculture-produced seafood and to the environmental sustainability of the sector. To support aquaculture diversification, targeted interventions at the levels of business models, policies and consumer acceptance will be investigated.

To assess the nutritional contribution from IMTA (WP1), we will compare the total fatty acid budget on monocultures and IMTA systems, using data from desk-based reviews and direct data collection, from seaweed farms and culture trials of mussels and sea urchins, as input to growth models and mass-balance trophic models parameterised for fatty acids. Socio-economic values will be integrated into biophysical analysis by developing a bioeconomic model and assessing the potential social license to operate of IMTA systems (WP4), to comprehensively evaluate the provisioning, regulatory and socio-cultural ecosystem services linked to IMTA systems.

Further to describing the potential of IMTA to contribute to healthy and sustainable diets and ecosystems, the project will address implementation challenges by producers and consumers towards the diversification of aquaculture. To identify policy barriers to the adoption of IMTA and diversification (WP5), the project will assess the existing policy priorities and identify the underlying interests and incentives that affect the environment for reform towards IMTA. It will further explore the potential of seaweeds and invertebrates produced in integrated systems as candidates for nutrient and carbon trading credits. To assess the scope for improving consumer acceptance (WP3), the project will test the power of retail interventions in an experimental online supermarket with the aim of identifying seafood products with high market expansion potential. This assessment will be followed by a sensory experiment to evaluate the acceptability of novel products from IMTA, using facial recognition software to monitor the taster's displayed feelings during the task, which will help identify within each seafood category (e.g. algae) those varieties that consumers appreciate the most, therefore informing the research on business models. To address economic challenges to industry uptake, existing business models for aquaculture production in the UK will be described and a classification will be derived to identify how the these could be improved (WP2). This analysis will be complemented by stakeholder workshops to design innovative business models, using the Business Model Canvas. The workshops will explore new value propositions to the customers and opportunities for companies' market differentiation.

Through this interdisciplinary approach, the project will collectively assess and document the environmental, nutritional and economic benefits of IMTA and aquaculture diversification, providing the industry and policy-makers with insights to facilitate the transition to healthier and more sustainable aquaculture.

Technical Summary

Aquaculture provides nearly half of the world's seafood. In spite of the UK being the largest EU producer, the UK's salmon-dominated industry faces challenges on health and welfare, management of environmental interactions and social licence to operate. Furthermore, although seafood is an essential component of a healthy diet, consumption of fish in the UK is currently less than half of the recommended intake and reliant on a handful of species. Diversifying production and consumption, especially towards extractive species, and in particular culturing these species in proximity of fed-species in Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) systems, has long been recognised for its bioremediation potential, but is yet to be commercially viable in the UK.

This project will address the challenges of health, sustainability and resilience within the UK food system by supporting a step-change towards the diversification of UK aquaculture and the transition to IMTA systems. We will investigate the contribution of IMTA systems to the nutritional profile of seafood and to the reduction of negative environmental impacts, and address regulatory, consumer acceptance and business challenges to the diversification of UK aquaculture. Specifically, this project will evaluate (i) the contribution of IMTA to total fatty acids budgets from aquaculture (ii) the socioeconomic value of ecosystem services associated with IMTA, (iii) existing regulatory barriers to the adoption of IMTA and policy interventions to diversify UK production, (iv) consumer acceptance of new seafood products within an increased sustainability context, and (v) existing and emerging business models that can disrupt the current business-as-usual situation, so as to unblock existing barriers to the development of the sector. The project will involve farmers, retailers and policymakers in the aquaculture supply chain and will advance the understanding of opportunities for aquaculture diversification.

Planned Impact

To improve on the status quo, and support the aquaculture sector in developing healthier, more sustainable, and more resilient food systems, changes in business practices, consumer choices, and regulatory frameworks are required, facilitating the introduction of new species, technologies and processes in this area.

The focus of the project is on the full supply chain. By providing evidence on the potential of IMTA to improve the fatty acids profiles of aquaculture systems, the project aims to spark the interest of producers, retailers and other stakeholders. The project will highlight the multiple uses of seafood produced from IMTA systems, as food (improving human nutrition directly), or using IMTA-grown seafood as source of PUFA for farmed fish. The project will also generate valuable information and tools for other stages of the supply chain, by providing targeted information to consumers; and by demonstrating the potential of IMTA to generate value-added in processing industries. This systems-wide, food-chain approach implies that the results will benefit a broad range of stakeholders in society, and will be widely disseminated to the public and relevant stakeholders through briefs, infographics and industry-targeted presentations.

Crucially, one of the impact pathways of this project will be developed in the short term by engaging companies to co-design new business models that have built-in circular economy principles (such as minimising waste, pollution and resource use); and by engaging local communities to identify strategies for building social license for diversified aquaculture. Retailers and policymakers will also be involved and informed throughout the length of the project, to ensure that the information can reach consumers on a large scale.

In addition to academic outputs, the project will disseminate its findings through stakeholder workshops and industry and policy briefings summarising a suite of new business models, and entry points to increase consumer acceptance of alternative seafood species and social acceptance of IMTA operations of local communities. The briefings will be used to advance ideas about improving nutrition through enhanced fatty acid profiles of aquaculture systems, scaling out the new business models to other companies across supply chains, ecosystem based approaches to aquaculture management planning, regulating the environmental costs of aquaculture and community participation as a central factor in aquaculture governance. The key stakeholders will include policy makers at multiple levels (from food boards, to the fisheries sector, to environmental agencies), aquaculture companies, the local host communities and the broader food sector with its supply chains, and ultimately the general public through their consumption choices.


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Description Evidence submission to the National Food Strategy call for evidence
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation