What Contribution Can Aquaculture Make to Global Food Security?

By 2050, the UN projects the world’s human population to reach 9.3 billion (UN, 2010). As the global population continues to expand, future demand for fish products is anticipated to rapidly increase thanks to escalating economic development (Merino et al. 2012). Current per capita fish consumption must be increased via methods alternative to traditional capture fisheries to meet the requirements for a growing volume and stability of global fish supplies. Rapid population growth combined with a global decline of ocean fisheries stock has delivered incentive for the unprecedented growth in fish and shellfish farming, known as aquaculture (Naylor et al. 2000). Aquaculture is distinguished from traditional capture fisheries by two significant criteria – stock ownership and intentional interference in the production cycle (husbandry) (Naylor et al. 2000). It is these two criteria making aquaculture increasingly attractive on various scales, as dwindling wild fish stocks reduce the common pool of resources and threaten economic income, both domestically and internationally.

Climate-driven changes in ecosystem productivity (Brander 2007), combined with fisheries management effectiveness (Rice and Garcia 2011) and the capacity to increase aquaculture productivity, whilst improving its sustainability (Naylor et al. 2009), will dictate the ability of marine fisheries and aquaculture to cater for the requirements of projected future food security. However, intensified productivity of aquaculture is not the only criteria defining its ability to contribute to future food security, with both social and economic accessibility also being significant (fig. 1). This essay primarily focusses on environmental constraints hindering sustainable aquaculture productivity intensification and on the socio-economic factors that influence the contribution aquaculture can make to future food security.

FAO 2010Figure 1: The interrelation of generic indicators of food security (FAO 2010)

Defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in their ‘The State of Food Insecurity (2001)’ report, “food security is a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Globally, fish provides a significant source of protein for two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants, particularly for coastal and less-economically developed (LEDC) countries, due to it being rich in essential amino-acids and minerals (FAO 2010; Rice and Garcia 2011). Furthermore, fish also contain long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) and essential micronutrients, like selenium, not readily available in other food sources and has beneficial effects for adult health and child cognitive development (HLPE 2014). Kawarazuka and Béné (2011) stated that in 2010, 22 of the 30 countries where fish comprises over one-third of the total animal protein supply, are Low Income and Food Deficient counties (LIFDCs), such as Sierra Leone (75%), highlighting the significance of focussing on economic and social accessibility within policy alongside productivity intensification.

Concerning intensified production, aquaculture’s capacity to respond to projected food security requirements whilst also easing burdens on marine resources is a valuable opportunity; however, it does highlight some sustainability issues (Naylor et al. 2000). Climate change is anticipated to have varying impacts on future fisheries and aquaculture production patterns, for example via range shifts (Cheung et al. 2009) or through alterations in net marine primary production (Brander 2007; Cheung et al. 2009). Concurrently, there are regions where climate change is anticipated to expand fisheries and aquaculture potential. Norway, for example, is expecting a boost in aquaculture growth due to favourable consequences of climate change as well as a reduced dependency on fishmeal imports (Merino et al. 2012). Climate change impacts therefore vary temporally and spatially and may provide benefits to some, where costs are delivered to others; however, aquaculture may be favoured over traditional capture fisheries due to the latter’s over-exploitation and depleting fish stocks providing economic and social uncertainty for future food security.

A recent report by the FAO presents that in 2009 global aquaculture produced 55.1 million tons (Mt) of fish (including shellfish) and global marine catches caught 90 Mt of fish, with 144.6 million tons produced by wild fisheries (freshwater and marine) and aquaculture in total (Natale et al. 2013; Bondad-Reantaso et al. 2012). The FAO estimates the maximum potential fish production from current marine fisheries to be approximately 80 Mt/year (FAO 2010), with over-exploited fisheries and ecological impacts exacerbated by climate change, aquaculture is integral to securing protein supply for over one billion people within developing countries. Roughly two-thirds of this production is utilised globally for human consumption, whilst the remaining third is processed by the fishmeal and fish oil industries to generate feed for aquaculture and livestock industries (Naylor et al. 2000, 2009); Consequently, threatening ecological health and food production of capture fisheries.

Although it is widely believed that aquaculture expansion will alleviate stress on ocean fisheries suffering from dwindling fish stocks, this may not be the case for certain types of aquaculture (Naylor et al. 2000). For example, farming of carnivorous fish species demands huge quantities of wild fish for food (Naylor et al. 2000), threatening wild fisheries stocks with intensified depletion due to the heightened demand for fish meal and fish oil (Naylor et al. 2009). In 2009, 27.3 million tons of the total production manufactured non-food products, including 20 million feeding the fishmeal and fish oil industries (Natale et al. 2013). A wealth of production systems exist for aquaculture, creating an irony whereby aquaculture is a potential resolution to a growing demand for future food security, but it may also be a significant contributing factor to the collapse of wild fisheries stocks globally (Naylor et al. 2000). Additional concerns surrounding intensified aquaculture production include biosecurity, invasive species and pathogens, habitat destruction and chemical and antibiotic leeching into water supplies. For aquaculture productivity to expand to meet the projected demand, governance and policy must integrate technological solutions to these problems.

As well as enhancing the availability of fish as a food source, aquaculture creates jobs and income to allow improved access to food and supports improved consumption of high-grade protein and indispensable micronutrients (HLPE 2014). Boosting aquaculture productivity is frequently expected to elicit a larger availability of fish, and consequently superior income, nutrition and food security, especially within developing nations (Morgan et al. 2016). Yet, although important, expanding availability is only a fraction of the food security concept, thus heightened production will not inevitably equate to these outcomes, especially for marginalised groups, who are often the target of these sought-after developments (Morgan et al. 2016). In addition to production challenges, socio-economic dynamics from production to consumption influence the ability of aquaculture to provide its envisioned development outcomes, particularly in an unbiased manner (Morgan et al. 2016).

Krause et al. (2015) argue that a “people-policy gap” exists within aquaculture, leading to unequal benefits distribution and unfavourable impacts on human health and food security, which combined can have harmful consequences on social and ecological communities. The current push toward sustainable development of aquaculture has focussed on trade, ecology and technology with the socio-economic repercussions on a variety of scales frequently being overlooked (Smith et al. 2010). Many people working within aquaculture production are smallholders located within developing countries on marginalised land, and it is critical these stakeholders are involved in the discussions surrounding aquaculture policy (Krause et al. 2015). These smallholders operate an extensive range of aquaculture methods, ranging from subsistence farming to specialised commercially-orientated farms (Krause et al. 2015), highlighting their substantial contribution to global food security.

Improved income and employment prospects are also improved through aquaculture, in addition to heightened consumption (Ahmed and Lorica 2002). Aquaculture has various similarities and differences to traditional fisheries, but the most significant difference is the higher degree of production control associated with stronger property rights (Natale et al. 2013). For this reason, it is believed there will be a transition from catch fisheries to aquaculture, particularly in the new era of fishing quotas and property rights equivalent on the common pool resource of fish stocks (Anderson 2002). Aquaculture increases fish production globally, therefore reducing prices and enhancing income and food access opportunities, especially for populations of the world’s poorest nations. At the food market level these two sectors are increasingly interacting economically, especially considering their growing dependence on the fishmeal and fish oil industries due to their significance in aquafeed (Natale et al. 2013).

Aquaculture requires secure land access and substantial economic investment, even within small-scale farms, consequently small-fisheries may be more attractive to impoverished people (Belton and Thilstead 2014). That said, considerable employment prospects may be available for poor communities via capitalist aquaculture, as high economic returns can be generated compared to additional agricultural pursuits, even at a small-scale (Belton et al. 2012). For small-scale aquaculture to be accessible to rural households in LEDCs, reasonable and unbiased access to resources must be incorporated into policy (Ahmed and Lorica 2002), for instance, households within this setting in Asian countries stress great importance of land and water (pond) resources in the establishment of subsistence aquaculture (Ahmed and Lorica 2002).

Fish is a highly sought-after commodity with aquaculture presenting developing countries great economic opportunity; however, this also provides potential risks to their food security. This may be further threatened because of the seafood trade, as developing countries export huge volumes of highly nutritious fish to rich countries for economic return (Asche et al. 2015). Troell et al. (2014) argued that aquaculture producing high-value seafood potentially threatens the food security of low-income households. This is exemplified by 50% of the global value of seafood exports belonging to developing countries, with only 23% accounting for imports (Asche et al. 2015). Arguably, this presents a grave problem for food security of impoverished countries, as they are potentially deprived of profoundly required proteins (Asche et al. 2015). On the flip side, large exports generated by aquaculture production within developing countries arguably contributes to poverty alleviation via augmented income and purchasing power subsequent of export growth (Asche et al. 2015).

Technology is another key component in aquacultures contribution to global food security; however, richer nations have higher accessibility to technological advances than the poor (Kent 1976). Aquaculture policy frequently fails to adjust social and institutional restrictions, stopping small-scale farm involvement with innovative technologies (Ahmed and Lorica 2002). Furthermore, a study by Dey et al. (2000) demonstrated aquaculture production providing a substantial quantity of consumption for countries including Vietnam and Bangladesh, where smallholder aquaculture dominates production and enables cultural food preferences, especially in rural areas. This thereby indicates the vital contribution fish farming provides to households within rural areas for their food and nutrition supply.

Scientifically-informed policies that encompass stakeholder input at several tiers of decision-making (e.g individually, locally, nationally and regionally) are necessary for efficient and comprehensive management (Kraus et al. 2015). This is integral to the success of aquaculture, as an extensive variety of stakeholders are often omitted from the decision-making and policy-formulating procedures involving aquaculture, therefore affecting its social sustainability (Belton et al. 2016). Aquaculture policy mainly centres on improving production in a sustainable manner, which although important, does not adopt a multifaceted view, reflecting social, economic and environmental interests. Policies must also incorporate property ownership, labour utilisation and the role of the state during decision-making processes so that marginalised rural communities alongside the growing urban middle classes can equally benefit from heightened aquaculture production, both nutritionally and economically (Kraus et al. 2015). Undeniably, institutional and academic policies may not be able to reflect the interests, priorities and concerns of all groups, therefore it is crucial to determine which type of aquaculture works best for which group of people (Belton and Little 2011).

In conclusion, aquaculture on a range of scales will undoubtedly offer a substantial contribution to global food security; however, it is integral for policy development to encourage more sustainable development, whilst also ensuring it is economically and socially accessible to communities within rural, marginalised countries by engaging them within stakeholder discussions and promoting the accessibility of innovative technologies. Furthermore, diversification of production and trade must be introduced to aquaculture policy on an international-level to allow for improved economic and social accessibility to food security and therefore heightened food sovereignty.


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Disclaimer: The header photograph used was obtained from Flickr and was labelled for reuse.

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