Increased commitment to aquatic food systems will boost food and nutritional security as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, affirmed government, academic and business leaders at the Virtual Ocean Dialogues, hosted by the World Economic Forum & Friends of Ocean Action.
Aquatic ‘blue’ foods are key to improving global food and nutrition security, which is predicted to intensify during the COVID-19 pandemic. With investment, aquaculture can produce up to 75 percent more seafood than it does today, and drive sustainable economic growth, said Rosamond Naylor, an economist at Stanford University and chair of the Blue Food Assessment.
“One in five people depend on fish as a vital source of protein as well as micronutrients in their diets,” Naylor explained as part of the discussions to mark World Ocean Day. “It’s time for a major international scientific effort to understand oceans and aquatic food systems and their potential for the future of food.”
Foods from below water are rich in the micronutrients that humans need. Boosting their role in the global food system will improve the health and well-being of the world’s growing population, she said at the session on aquaculture’s role in nourishing the billions. Investment in the aquatic food research agenda is critical to COVID-19 recovery efforts.
The blue food potential spans beyond oceans with inland water bodies an extremely important part of global production. Focus on the potential of aquaculture in agricultural systems like rice and fish provides affordable ways to diversify and enrich people’s diets, said Shakuntala Thilsted, the WorldFish Research Program Leader for Value Chains and Nutrition. Diversifying food in local agricultural systems is especially important as COVID-19 disruptions have impacted supply chains.
“Having more fish and aquatic foods means a more diverse and nutritious diet. Aquatic food needs more space on people’s plates across the world,” she said. “Production needs to take on a nutrition-sensitive approach.”
A change is needed in perceptions of nutritious diets to include aquatic food as healthy options, youth who are increasingly turning to aquatic foods can be key drivers of this transformation, the nutrition specialist explained. Harnessing research that could sustain the health of oceanic and freshwater ecosystems will benefit the health and livelihoods of the communities who rely on them.
Championing the potential of blue foods, Auden Lem, the UNFAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Deputy Director of the Policy and Economic Division, called on the sector to engage in the wider food security and livelihood debate.
“Fish is part of the solution and cannot and should not be ignored and there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future,” said Lem, who launched the UNFAO State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020.
There is much progress in innovation and technology to sustainably increase aquaculture’s contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Highlighting the growth potential, Lem referenced Egypt, which over the last 10 years has tripled its annual production in aquaculture to almost 1.4 million tons contributing to the country’s food security.
However, as demand for aquatic food increases, the ocean economy and marine resources continue to face the brunt of the impact. There needs to be a deeper understanding of ocean governance and aquaculture value chains, emphasized Giles Bolton, who leads responsible sourcing at supermarket chain Tesco.
Aquatic foods must play an essential part in global agricultural systems research
Growing data shows aquatic food systems provide opportunities for expanding the production of food while relieving pressures on wildlife and natural ecosystem functions on land, which are experiencing the fastest rates of extinction because of habitat loss, said Gareth Johnstone, the Director-General of WorldFish at the side event, ‘Transforming the global agricultural research and development agenda with aquatic foods.’
“Fish and aquatic foods must occupy a central place in our food future and agricultural research agenda alongside land-based crops when we think about food systems,” he said.
Capturing the power of aquaculture to relieve pressure on land-based resources is an essential part of a holistic approach to food systems, explained Marco Ferroni, Chair of CGIAR System Management Board, the CGIAR is the world’s largest network of agricultural researchers.
Taking a holistic system approach in agricultural research is essential to achieving global food security. Responding to COVID-19 impacts is a multidimensional challenge, all binding constraints must be addressed for scalable solutions to become possible, he explained.
“We need ‘systems thinking for impact’ in CGIAR’s research endeavours in food and nutrition security, poverty reduction, gender equity, environment, and climate change resilience and mitigation,” he added.
The importance of aquatic foods for livelihoods and nutrition is clear, fish is as important as other animal-source foods in many lower and middle-income countries and needs to be given adequate attention, Tony Cavalieri, a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told the panel.
Evidently, there needs to be a continuum of scientific research and innovation on sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, and resilient fish value chains, said Stanford University researcher Jim Leape, who worked on the Blue Food Assessment with Naylor and Thilsted.
“We must guide different market actors and decision-makers towards viable evidence-based policy choices and investment options, which are critical if we are to truly leverage the potential of the world’s fastest-growing food production sector, aquaculture, as well as sustainable fisheries to transform global food systems, and make them work for both people and the environment,” Leape emphasized.
WorldFish will host a series of global and regional virtual discussions over the coming months in a bid to continue mobilizing a global movement within research, government and business sectors to prioritize aquatic food’s larger role in the food systems.