Generation Z, a generational cohort whose members value the sustainability of their purchasing decisions, may have unique opinions regarding sustainable seafood, given their sustainability values. Therefore, it is important to know Generation Z experiences with seafood and how they perceive the role of seafood to feed people while sustaining the future natural environment.
Human values alter the definition of sustainability, causing it to vary based on region and time; therefore, it cannot be reduced to a singular definition. Yet, news stories and campaigns in the mid-1990s initiated a sustainable seafood movement that paralleled ethical consumerism and established a foundation for consumers’ knowledge of what is considered sustainable seafood.
Generation Z, a generational cohort in the United States (U.S.) whose members value the sustainability and environmental impact of their purchasing decisions, will soon play a significant role in the marketplace with their purchasing power.
Generation Z has more options, including seafood options in the marketplace when compared to generations before them because of the emergence of the global market and the internet, which may impact how they view and purchase seafood.
Few U.S.-based studies have explored the consumption of seafood and its perceived sustainability as part of the food system, yet seafood is considered an important component of future food security. Generation Z will soon have a strong influence on the marketplace, making their opinions regarding seafood, particularly pertinent to food security discussions.
It is important to understand Generation Zs’ experiences with place attach ment and family identity while growing up in a digital world that exposed them to information inaccessible to previous generations, as it may influence the impact of place attachment and family identity on food consumption.
Therefore, we share the results of a qualitative study that sought to develop a rich understanding of Generation Z students’ experiences with seafood and how they perceive the role of seafood in feeding people while sustaining the future natural environment.
Materials and methods
The population of interest for the current study were Generation Z consumers in the U.S.A. specifically, undergraduate students at the University of Georgia. A total of 68 students, representative of the population of interest, participated in 11 focus groups (FG).
Courses in which students were invited to participate, including an agricultural leadership course, a service-learning course, a floriculture course, and a global food policy course. A range of courses were included to ensure representation from students across the college were present in the sample (Table 1).
Students’ experience with seafood
Themes were identified based on participants’ experience with seafood. They included geographic location, experience fishing or with fishermen, and seafood and family (Table 2).
Geographic location impacted participants’ experience with seafood. Many participants preferred eating seafood when they were visiting a coastal community on vacation. One participant considered eating seafood a special and place-based event and said, “my family and I also predominantly only eat seafood when we go to the coast as a special thing. It’s not a regular part of our diet” (FG 11).
Participants also expressed distrust in seafood that was sold inland. For example, one participant said, “I feel like most of my experience with seafood has been when we’ve taken vacations to the beach [ . . . ] I feel like that’s where I trust it the most. Whereas at home, I know it doesn’t come locally as much. Maybe it does from aquaculture and stuff like that, but I don’t feel as comfortable eating it as I would in a beach setting or a coastal setting” (FG 8).
“Participants who grew up in coastal areas also had a preference for seafood. Experience fishing or with fishermen impacted students’ experience with seafood. Participant experience fishing on their own or with others and/or knowing someone who fished, such as a family friend or commercial fisherman, influenced perceptions.”
For example, one participant explained, “[w]e grew up going deep sea fishing pretty often in the summers and spring break down in Florida, just all off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf. So, [I] love seafood—always have probably always will” (FG 10). Consumption of fish caught in saltwater was more popular among participants than consumption of fish caught in freshwater.
Another identified theme was how familial interactions influenced participants’ experiences with seafood. Participants who indicated they currently ate seafood often had seafood with their family growing up, whereas participants who indicated they currently did not eat seafood did not have seafood with their family growing up.
Students’ conceptualization of seafood’s role in feeding people
The second research question explored participants’ perceptions of seafood’s role in feeding people, the themes that emerged included sustainability, regulations, limiting seafood consumption, and limited knowledge (Table 2).
Sustainability was a primary theme that emerged in the participants’ conceptualization of seafood’s role in feeding people. Many participants discussed the importance of maintaining healthy fish habitats as a mechanism of sustainability to ensure fish are available as a food source in the future.
“One participant said, “I think that we should focus on the environmental health of those habitats first. And then, in turn, I think that having more fish to fish will come” (FG 6).”
Participants discussed balancing sustainability and feeding people. One participant explained: “I feel like with all these situations, it’s a really fine line between feeding the population and also being environmentally cautious. I feel like going forward, just find solutions that cater to both because yes, you have to feed your population, but if you exploit the environment, then in turn, you’re going to deplete your food source. I think finding solutions that think about long-term effects, but also cater, I guess, to both issues” (FG 5).
In contrast, participants discussed the idea that sustainability should be a “top priority” (FG 2) as there are other food sources people can consume.
Regulations were a main theme that emerged in the participants’ conceptualization of seafood’s role in feeding people. Regulations were often discussed as a way to increase sustainability but were coded differently than sustainability as they were explicitly mentioned by the participant.
Although regulations were often posed as a way to increase sustainability, one participant expressed the need for “more people to check up on the regulations” (FG 7) so that they are enforced. Similar to sustainability, four participants expressed the need for a “fine line” (FG 5; FG 8) between sustainable regulations and feeding people.
One participant explained “Regulation [is] going to be key. I don’t think you can just ban fishing, but I also don’t think you can just go kill the fish in the sea” (FG 8).
“Limiting seafood consumption was a main identified theme in the participants’ conceptualization of seafood’s role in feeding people. Participants explained that seafood was “not really a part of most people’s diets” (FG 7), that it should be “geared towards a luxury [item]” (FG 6), and that it should not be a “main food source” (FG 6). “
One participant noted the complexity of limiting seafood consumption and said: “I really feel that in the next couple of years, there should be a push to decrease what I would call harvest fishing, as much as I hate to say that because I really appreciate that industry, but I think that can be supplemented by increases in production of fish or aquaculture just because you can make [it . . . ] a little more sustainable. But it’s really a difficult situation all around; I hate to be the person who actually has to make those choices” (FG 11).
Inland fisheries, aquaculture, and traditional land-based farming were often posed as solutions to limiting coastal or offshore fishing. Similarly, participants believed coastal communities could profit from industries other than fishing.
Participants expressed limited knowledge about seafood’s role in feeding people. This often intertwined with sustainability, as participants did not know how to make fishing sustainable.
Generation Z consumers are defined by their sustainable values and have the potential to influence the marketplace in the years to come, but may have limited experience with frequent seafood consumption (Terry et al., 2018).
Sustainability, regulations, limiting seafood consumption, and limited knowledge were identified as ways participants conceptualized seafood’s role in feeding people. As the sustainability generation, Generation Z is an important consumer segment to analyze food-system and seafood consumption perspective, given their self-identification and emerging market importance (Petro, 2021).
“There was an overlap between geographic location, seafood and family, indicating identity does play a role in seafood consumption, or lack thereof.”
Consistently connecting individuals with their food system from an early age may leverage identity and help students be more aware of the sustainability of their consumption habits (Lee et al., 2015). Food-system educators are uniquely positioned to engage Generation Z consumers in the sustainable consumption of seafood.
Many participants knew about sustainability and regulations were important for the future of seafood as a food source, but some did not know how to implement sustainable practices, especially in the context of an industry with which they were unfamiliar.
Food-system educators should integrate seafood into their curricula as many participants expressed limited knowledge about sustainable seafood and the associated industry.
This study provides valuable insight into sustainable consumption patterns of Generation Z surrounding seafood. Findings suggest Generation Z wants the seafood industry to be more sustainable. Thus, food-system educators need to focus on how sustainability can be improved and actions students can take to improve sustainability.
Additionally, Generation Z needs to be exposed to the seafood industry through family or place in order to increase the likelihood of seafood consumption. Study findings demonstrate a need to have an indepth understanding of generational experiences when researching consumers’ consumption patterns.
This is a summarized version developed by the editorial team of Aquaculture Magazine based on the review article titled “THE INFLUENCE OF SUSTAINABILITY ON IDENTITIES AND SEAFOOD CONSUMPTION: IMPLICATIONS FOR FOOD SYSTEMS EDUCATION FOR GENERATION” developed by: Gibson, K. – University of Georgia, Sanders, C. – North Carolina State University, Byrd, A., Lamm, K. and Lamm, A. – University of Georgia.
The original article, including tables and figures, was published on MAY, 2023, through FOODS. The full version can be accessed online through this link: https://doi.org/10.3390/foods12101933