Last week we talked about Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch® and how they advocate for sustainable fisheries around the world. Sustainably-sourced seafood hinges on the idea of conserving fish populations to ensure a future food source for generations to come, but few have researched this in the context of the global population growth expected by 2050. Do we have enough fish left to feed the planet? Or is this a lost cause?
Work by Dr. Christophe Béné, formerly at the Institute of Development Studies but now at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, focused on this seminal question. According to Dr. Béné and colleagues, the role of seafood in ensuring global food security is highly under-researched, especially given the fact that fish is the largest source of animal protein in the world. For some countries, especially those in the coastal regions of Africa and Asia, fish can represent as high as 60% of total dietary protein.
While this is insightful, fish are perhaps more important as a source of key dietary fats and micronutrients than as a source of protein. They contain DHA and EPA, two types of omega-3 fatty acids that can only be obtained from marine sources. Furthermore, they are also excellent sources of vitamin B and vitamin D, and small, lipid-dense species often contain high levels of Vitamin A, calcium, phosphorous, iodine, zinc, iron, and selenium. Up until this point, many global public health experts focused on supplementation and various methods of fortification as a means of treating micronutrient deficiencies -- however, the role of fish in combatting these problems is currently under investigation.
So, given the importance of fish on a global scale, why hasn’t seafood been adequately explored in the context of food security? If it truly has as much potential as some are arguing for, then shouldn’t there be a bigger push for sustainable seafood? Finally, how are we going to maintain adequate fish stocks to not only feed our current population but encourage growth to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050?
Problems that Must be Overcome:
Fish Waste is Out of Hand:
Bycatch, or the accidental entrapment of non-target species, is unavoidable in the commercial fishing industry. However, a report by the FAO argues that some fisheries discard up to 90% of their haul due to bycatch, illegally-sized fish, or spoilage. In 2005 this amounted to 7.3 million tons of discard, over 80% of which were attributed to industrial fleets.
There is also a significant amount of post-harvest waste from small-scale fisheries, mostly from developing countries where refrigeration, air-conditioning, and proper preservation methods are inferior or absent. While global estimates for this type of waste, reported to be between 10 and 12 million tons, are much lower than industrial numbers, this still represents a major loss given that these are populations disproportionately affected by malnutrition and/or food insecurity.
We touched on this briefly in last week’s article about sustainable seafood, but overfishing remains a fiercely debated topic. There was once an apocalyptic view about the world’s fisheries -- many had the doomsday approach that we had surpassed a threshold and were destroying fish populations significantly faster than they could ever be replaced. Nowadays, the rhetoric has calmed down slightly but the overall message remains: the world’s fisheries would be better off if overfishing was reduced.
The aforementioned FAO report argues that the sustainability of fisheries should be a sine qua non condition for their existence -- meaning that the long-term viability of a fishery should be just as important as profit, volume of catch, and global food security. However, they also acknowledge the vague nature of the word “sustainable,” as well as the fact that overall sustainability is intangible and thus notoriously difficult to quantify.
Technology is Lacking:
Up to this point we’ve been discussing largely marine fisheries -- a major source of the world’s seafood, but not the only one. Aquaculture, more colloquially known as fish farming, also represents an important source of fish and crustaceans. Unfortunately, aquaculture growth is expected to slow over time. Successful processes require ample amounts of fresh water, adequate locations that are capable of filtration, and significant amounts of expensive fish meal and other food. All of these hurdles could be overcome, at least partially, with proper technological innovation. However, until aquaculture and seafood as a whole become more salient in the context of global food security, interest and funds required for this innovation are likely to be insufficient.
Technology will play a particularly important role when it comes to fish feed. Carnivorous fish are obviously accustomed to a diet made up primarily of other fish and/or sea creatures, which simply pushes the problem of sustainable seafood farther down the food chain. The use of synthetic fish feed and plant-based fish feed are on the rise, and the amount of catch used for “non-human consumption” has decreased from 30% to 15% according to this report by the World Bank. However, formulated feeds represent a very large production cost that acts as a limiting factor for many aquaculture establishments. To that end, technological innovation would result in an immediate and significant benefit.
Global Food Security Issues:
Although under-investigated, discussions surrounding sustainable seafood are not immune from key facets of the global food security conversation. Seafood in particular spoils very quickly, and must be properly stored or consumed almost immediately. This poses a significant problem in the developing world, where lack of refrigeration methods will prohibit all but the most coastal towns and villages from reaping the benefits of seafood.
Additionally, the world is experiencing increasing rates of urbanisation. By 2050, 66% of the world is expected to live in cities -- a trend that will require more transportation, storage, and distribution mechanisms for fresh seafood. This must be done in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way in order to mitigate, or at the very least minimise, the negative effects of global climate change.
Seafood is a very large contributor to the global food system, and the fact that it has until recently remained unacknowledged in the scientific literature is alarming. However, recent reports and investigative work have begun to remediate this, and these kinds of recommendations will prove indispensable as the world continues to grow and change. Hopefully we learn to take these guidelines to heart -- the global food supply depends on it.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed nutritionist nor a registered dietician. The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and each individual is ultimately responsible for his/her dietary and nutrition practices. Please consult a physician before starting a new dietary program.