Reimagining fish“Fish is food and must be harvested for the long-term benefit of all,” said Manuel Barange, Director of Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division at the FAO

Fisheries and aquaculture can lead the crucial overhaul of global food systems, writes Jason Holland

COVID-19 has exposed the frailty of global foodsystems and underlined the need for their transformation, but the onus is not just on making them far more resilient and able to withstand shocks such as those brought by the coronavirus pandemic, they must also ensure that they pass muster in terms of health and sustainability, heard the recent international forum ‘Building Forward Better with Aquatic Foods’, hosted by WorldFish.

Asserting that aquatic foods must be part of this new food landscape, Gareth Johnstone, Director General of WorldFish, informed the event that the pandemic’s epicentre had shifted from the developed to developing nations and that alongside the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19, the number of undernourished people looks set to increase by at least 14 million to over 80 million people, while another 70 million will be driven into extreme poverty.

“These are staggering numbers,” he said. “Under these circumstances, all of us must reimagine new ways of doing things and working together. This pandemic has forced us to confront the urgent need to transform our food systems – to do better for people and for our planet.”

Johnstone insisted that with a renewed focus on research approaches that are both interdisciplinary and holistic, there’s an excellent opportunity to rethink the future of food, including where it comes from, how it’s produced, distributed and consumed, who benefits from it, how it impacts the environment, and also how it can deal with major climate events or global disruptions like COVID-19.

As well as meeting the unprecedented global demand for fish and aquatic foods, and an annual consumption growth rate of just over 3% (outpacing both the world population expansion rate and the rise in meat consumption), fisheries and aquaculture are essential to the nutrition and livelihoods of more than 800 million people in developing countries, particularly those vulnerable to climate change, poverty, conflict and humanitarian emergencies, he said.

“With investment in better management and technology innovation, the ocean – if we think of it as a giant food system – can provide over six times as much food as it does today. Aquatic foods can offer a critical solution for the 2 billion people worldwide who suffer the triple burden of malnutrition. We cannot afford to ignore these facts if we are to feed and nourish 9 billlion people by 2050.”

Robert Bertram, Chief Scientist USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, added that fish and aquatic foods are “a prime example” of where COVID-19 is affecting food and nutrition, and said that it’s important to identify these weaknesses in order to help the sector “build back better”.

He said, “There are all kinds of things that are constraining demand because poor people especially don’t have the money to spend on higher quality foods. At the same time, the fish and aquatic food value chains are exactly those that are the most vulnerable because there’s a lot of human activity along them.

“So it’s a dual whammy in a sense, with less affordable prices and less income, not to mention the direct hits on producers and all the [stakeholders] along the market chains – transport, producers, retailers etc. It’s basically a perfect storm for nutrition.”

Mobilising momentum

While there has been a historical tendency for fish to be overlooked in important policy and investment decisions in favour of the agriculture research agenda, Johnstone believes there’s evidence of some positive changes in attitude.

“Together, we need to mobilise a global movement to embolden these shifts to a more sustainable food system, where the research community, policymakers, donors, investors, business leaders, local producers, processors, traders and consumers can create shared value and co-design interventions that make aquatic foods an integral part of the food system’s transformation agenda.”

He also suggested three targets to help aquatic foods to be part of a sustainable and inclusive future:

*Ensure the sustainable production of a wide diversity of aquatic foods, in turn minimising environmental impacts and also increasing adaptation and resilience to climate change

*Ensure aquatic foods are affordable and accessible, thereby maximising social and economic benefits and facilitating shared prosperity and inclusive growth

*Ensure aquatic foods are safe to eat – making them a key solution to nutrition and public health challenges

A ton of work to be done

Jim Leape, Co-Director at the Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, acknowledged the many studies that have been conducted in recent years looking specifically at how to nourish a future population of some 10 billion people while sustaining the planet’s natural systems, stating that one study after another has found that the world will have to increasingly rely on food produced in ocean and freshwater fisheries and aquaculture.

“The increased production of aquatic foods is appealing because it has the potential to meet that demand with a much lower environmental impact, and aquatic foods can also be healthier. The oceans present a great diversity for consumers with over 2000 species from wild-capture and farming that are being eaten.”

While the world “simply can’t afford to neglect” the role that these products already have in global food systems, the pandemic crisis exposed fragilities within the current fisheries and seafood sectors, with major disruptions seen in many supply chains, Leape said.

But solutions are coming to the fore that will increase resilience, the forum was told.

“One of the things that’s exciting is the emerging technology that can give us much more visibility into value chains and distribution systems than we’ve had before. That would allow us to create a different kind of accountability for how we are managing all food production, and also to harness the private sector to help us move in the direction that’s called for by the [UN Sustainable Development Goals – SGSs] – to a more sustainable sector.

“There’s a ton of work to be done there, but there’s lots of potential,” Leape said.

Improving the landscape

As part of the transition to a global aquatic food systems approach, Manuel Barange, Director of Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division at the FAO, said that he would like to see better mechanisms to protect supply chains and to innovate fish-to-fork systems that allow, for example, more automation, more utilisation and to facilitate trade as much as possible.

In addition, he wants support systems to be strengthened as the inefficiencies within these have been “very badly demonstrated” during the pandemic.

“They have not been very successful, especially in small-scale fisheries where labour arrangements are often informal,” he said.

Branage also offered “a call to attention”, clarifying that while the 2020 edition of the biennial publication, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” (SOFIA) reported that 2018 was a record year for the seafood sector in terms of production, consumption, trade and income, the FAO has also confirmed that the number of people suffering from hunger has been rising since 2015.

“The world is failing to fight hunger,” he said. “Fish is food and must be harvested for the long-term benefit of all.”

Summarising the discussions, Shakuntala Thilsted, Value Chains & Nutrition Research Leader at WorldFish, said she sees “so much potential” for aquatic foods to drive positive change within the COVID-19 recovery as well as to achieve the UN’s SGDs by 2030, and that this status deserves more attention in terms of research, policy and future investments.

“People’s ability to access diverse, nutritious and safe foods is at a risk, which in turn places health and resilience under threat. We must explore the diversity of aquatic foods as a key solution. We also need to understand consumer demands and promote aquatic foods as critical to keeping populations healthy and boosting immune systems, especially now in the midst of the COVID crisis..

“There has not been a better time to reimagine new ways of working together to bring meaningful partnerships, as well as combining resources, expertise and vision across the public and private sectors to address the global challenges of our time – prioritising the needs and aspirations of the world’s most vulnerable and poor,” she said.

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