A friend would tell me “something is a fish” when things were going badly. Today, the global food system is not just “a fish”; it is failing billions of people.
Hunger, malnutrition and obesity coexist in rich and poor countries alike, often in the same city or even in the same household. Diabetes, heart disease, coastal dead zones and other social burdens related to our food system continue to increase. Recognizing this urgent challenge, the United Nations will a world summit in September for government, businesses, nonprofits and civil society leaders to map a more sustainable, healthy and equitable food system.
The transformation of our food system will require a new mindset and a more careful consideration of blue foods – aquatic animals, plants and algae grown and captured in freshwater and marine environments.
Until now, the movement to build productive and sustainable food systems has focused on transforming land-based crops and livestock, largely neglecting the critical role of fish and other aquatic foods play in nutrition, livelihoods and ecosystems around the world. This role will increase as food production becomes increasingly vulnerable to climate change.
Over the past half-century, policymakers and business leaders have prioritized efficiency and scale by supporting major farmers and ranchers, reducing food prices for consumers, and expanding market opportunities. Blue foods, on the other hand, represent a large and complex group that challenges similar strategies.
Over 3,000 species of fish, crustaceans, plants and algae are produced worldwide in a wide range of ecosystems with different technologies at multiple scales. These include, for example, oceanic tuna cages in Australia, rows of algae and bivalves along the Chinese coasts, and freshwater catfish ponds in Vietnam, Nigeria and the United States. . Blue foods provide protein and micronutrients that help prevent maternal and child mortality, stunted growth, and cognitive deficits. . They also offer healthy fats which help reduce obesity and metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
In many cases, they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and environmental effects than factory farming. The Blue Food assessment, led by Stanford University and the Stockholm Resilience Center, is an international initiative aimed at identifying and filling the gaps in understanding the role of aquatic foods in global food systems today and in the future.
The diversity of blue foods should be seen as an opportunity, not a barrier, to improve food and nutrition security. In Bangladesh, the view from an airplane shows a landscape of small freshwater and brackish water ponds filled with an array of fish and aquatic plants. These aquaculture operations are biologically diverse treasure chests and critically important food sources for rural and urban communities.
Likewise, the African Great Lakes region produces huge volumes of affordable, micronutrient-rich fish that are marketed and consumed throughout the region. In the fish market of Kisumu, in the western province of Kenya, I observed tables filled with small fish sold for soups, and tilapia counters from three sources – raised in regional aquaculture ponds, caught at l wild state of Lake Victoria and imported from China – all at different price and quality for the local consumer. These fish, and many others that I didn’t know, were easy to sell and were served in small portions with vegetables and starches. Locals regard fish as “a rich food for the poor”.
Blue foods, of course, are rich foods for everyone. people, with the global consumer demand is increasing. As wild fish catches and aquaculture production vary considerably from region to region, the seafood trade has become a booming international activity. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, seafood trade has roughly doubled in volume and value in recent decades. Fish is now one of the most traded commodities in the global food system, with significant effects.
Many stocks of wild fish, with high market value, have been overexploited. Meanwhile, some aquaculture systems, such as salmon cages in The fjords of Chile and freshwater fish cages in The Indonesian reservoir of Jatiluhur, have intensified too much. In Africa and Asia, including the disputed South China Sea, illegal fishing by foreign nations has deprived local communities of traditional and affordable fish diets and local income, raising issues of food injustice.
With wild stocks being exploited at full capacity, aquaculture will provide most of the additional fish produced and consumed in the future. Like all food production systems, fish farming presents tradeoffs on resources and the environment.
Most aquaculture systems rely on feed, and advances in genetics and nutrition have reduced the amount of feed used per pound of fish produced. Feed ingredients have gradually shifted to herbal products and adornments from fish and livestock processing plants. When comparing environmental results, farmed salmon or tilapia is similar to industrial chicken production. But this reliance on foods of land origin, such as soy protein, can have unintended environmental consequences, including deforestation, as significant areas of the Amazon are now cleared for soybean production.
The only way to fix the global food system is to tackle the opportunities and challenges of blue and green food together.
Individual countries need to move beyond governance of food systems through ministries of agriculture and fisheries, which primarily record progress by volume of production and economic measures. Governments should establish a coordinating agency or ministry of food with a budget and a specific mandate to promote improved health and environmental outcomes.
The United Nations and leaders meeting at the summit in September have a unique opportunity to transform food systems for all. Global food business leaders who invest in improving social and environmental outcomes should be applauded.
Most importantly, artisanal fishermen and aquaculture producers, who provide more than half of the seafood consumed globally, should not be seen as low-impact marginal contributors, but rather as anchor points. the resilience of the food system and potential drivers of economic growth.
Rosamond Naylor is William Wrigley Professor of Earth System Science and Founding Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. She is also co-chair of the Blue Food Assessment.