Can we rely on fish to feed our growing population?

Food security has constantly been recognized as one of the world’s main challenges. The increasing demand for food has put pressure on the environment and resources. Livestock farming is one of the leading causes of climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and land-use change. With the population expected to increase to over 9 billion people by 2050, our concerns are how we are going to feed a growing population while preserving biodiversity and environmental resources.

As Vera Agostini from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said:

“We’re running out of options on land”

It is estimated that around 821 million people in the world still go to bed on an empty stomach and that one in three suffer a form of malnutrition. How are we going to feed 9 billion in the future when we can’t even feed our current population?

Turning the tide?

Around 4.5 billion people worldwide rely on fish for protein and the nutritional value that it provides.  The oceans have for a long time been considered “limitless”, and since the carbon footprint of fish is considerably lower than other animal sources, the question of whether fish can become a main element in feeding our growing population is being heavily researched. Fishing directly and indirectly contribute to food security as around 10% of the world’s population of fish for food and income – particularly in the developing world.

While industrial and commercial fishing is still dominating the industry, aquaculture is becoming the main way of consuming fish. Aquaculture is the breeding, raising and harvesting of fish and other seafood – essentially it is farming in water. A recent study by Nature examined the potential of large-scale aquaculture to meet the world’s demand; findings show that it could be done in sustainable way without depleting ocean stocks.

aquaculture
Aquaculture is also known as aquafarming (source)

The aquaculture industry has been the fastest growing food producing sector in the last 40 years and it is only continuing to increase, and the supply of fish has been growing faster than the world’s population. The World Bank estimates that 62% of the world’s seafood will be from farm-raised fish by 2030.

The potential of fish

Fish contain essential amino acids as well as micronutrients such as vitamins A, B and D, and minerals such as calcium, iodine and phosphorus. This means that only could fish fight food insecurity, but also malnutrition in low income and food deficient countries.

fish

Countries like Brazil and Chile have recognised the importance of fish in reducing nutrient deficiencies and increasing food security and have incorporated fish in their national school-feeding programmes. Although fish could have a huge potential globally, limited attention has been given to the role of fish in food security in discussions and interventions.

 

“Fish is strikingly missing from strategies for reduction of micronutrient deficiency, precisely where it could potentially have the largest impacts

Troubled waters…

Industrial fishing has led to the extinction and near extinction of certain species like the Atlantic Bluefin tuna due to overfishing. Commercial and wild fishing also leads to the major problem of something called bycatch – this is when species are caught and killed unintentionally in fishing gear and nets. This has huge implication on the surrounding environment as it further contributes to the decline of ocean productivity and altering of food web dynamics. More than 30% of the world’s fisheries have been pushed beyond their limits and studies have shown that if fishing continues at the rate it does today, all the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. This shows the impracticalities of increasing fish production to feed 9 billion by 2050 – it is virtually impossible. If extreme overfishing and bycatch continues, we risk a global food crisis.

But what if it is done sustainably? Due to the unsustainable manner of the commercial fishing industry, there has been a rise in aquaculture in hope of lessening the impact on the environment and biodiversity.  Over the years there has been a decline in wild fisheries’ stock ,and aquaculture is considered to be a way for sustaining these wild fisheries’ stock as it allows for the monitoring of fish stocks and species. However, a big concern is whether aquaculture and fisheries can really be sustainable and the implications it brings for food security in the long-run. Another issue with aquaculture is when fish is used as meals for farmed fish and other livestock. Food security could be increased if fish was directly consumed by humans rather than being fed to other fish and animals as this would be a more efficient way to use the fish.

Sustainable intensification is when you produce more food from the same area while reducing environmental impacts – aquaculture is an example of this. However, relying on aquaculture for food security might not be as easy as it sounds as there are many “side-effects” of sustainable intensification.  Species that escape from aquaculture can become invasive when they enter non-native areas, in this case fish can also transmit diseases to wild fish populations. In aquaculture, if a disease is present contamination is a lot quicker as the fish are confined in one area – this could lead to losses in production, direct and indirect income, all of which could exacerbate food insecurity. The release of disease treatment chemicals and organic effluents can cause harm to the surrounding environment. In an age where climate change is a major issue, it’s not wise to start relying more on aquaculture as it can affect sea level rise and salinity variations which can have huge implications for the species in aquacultures.

Complete reliance on fish to feed a growing population is unrealistic and not a sustainable option, though it has a potential to close the food insecurity gap if the potential of fish is recognised and incorporated into policies.  As mentioned earlier, the consequences of relying heavily on fish could in fact be counterproductive and instead increase global food insecurity.

It looks like there’s not plenty of other fish in the sea after all…