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Transforming Life and Livelihoods with Aquatic Foods

By Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted
2021 World Food Prize Laureate

Diverse foods from our oceans and inland waters directly sustain the life and livelihoods of at least 800 million people, half of whom are women. For 3.3 billion of us, these foods are an essential source of micronutrients and essential fatty acids to our diets.

From the coastal fisheries of the small island nation Timor-Leste to the wetlands of Bangladesh and the lakes of landlocked Zambia, aquatic foods--the diverse animals, plants and microorganisms grown in and harvested from water--are integral to local cuisines, nutrition and health, wellbeing and cultures.

I have dedicated my career to researching ways  to improve nutrition and health for millions of vulnerable people in countries across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. In these regions, foods like fresh and dried fish are central to healthy diets, and are often cheap or available. Most of the people working in aquatic food systems are women, migrant workers, and belong to informal sectors that may not see direct aid and support from governments or donors. For them, aquatic “super foods” pack an outsized punch as rich sources of micronutrients. I have seen how they transform the lives and livelihoods of women and men, while having generational impacts on the health of children.

It was a true honor to be named the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate for my nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, both in fisheries and aquaculture. I feel the award is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development. It underscores the need to prioritize aquatic foods in nutrition policies and programs, at national and global levels.

With the UN Food Systems Summit this year, the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition halfway through, and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development just beginning, 2021 is a momentous year for action. Low- and middle-income countries in particular must develop and implement targeted policies, strategies and investments to harness the power of diverse aquatic foods to transform food, land and water systems and achieve multiple wins toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nutrition-sensitive Approaches To Aquatic Food Systems Is A Game-changer

Nutrition-sensitive approaches put human nutrition and health as a principal objective in the management of food systems. I often like to say that the goal of food production should not only be about “feeding” a growing world population. Rather, it should be about “nourishing” all people, all nations and our planet.

Nutrition-sensitive approaches are multipronged, producing innovations at multiple points of the food system, from production, post-harvest, and marketing to consumption and waste. By prioritizing these approaches, we foster the engagement of vulnerable communities in aquatic food production, improve equal access to resources and entrepreneurial opportunities, and boost the consumption of healthy sustainable diets.

Integrated Land And Water Food Production Systems

Nutrition-sensitive approaches in fisheries and aquaculture, such as fish-rice systems, encourage the integrated production of diverse fish species together with vegetables in homestead ponds and coastal and inland waters. This approach educates women and men on the nutritional benefits of consuming diverse foods while developing capacity around polyculture pond practices–which see large fish like carp species grown together with small indigenous fish species–integrated with the cultivation of diverse vegetables, such as orange sweet potato.

With more food in the homestead farm, women have the opportunity to earn an income and contribute to the household finances, hence strengthening their roles in household decision-making. A key success is the shift to the cultivation and consumption of diverse small fish. Small fish are a super food, rich in multiple essential micronutrients, including iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and A and essential fatty acids, as well as animal protein. Vitamin B12, obtainable only from animal-source foods, is essential for brain and cognitive development of young children.

First pioneered in Bangladesh, pond polyculture has been adopted by over 700,000 households with numbers increasing thanks to the Government of Bangladesh, which has backed the innovation in its growth policy. This approach has also been scaled and adapted in Cambodia, Myanmar, India and several countries in Africa.

Small Fish Powder Reimagines Nutrient-rich Meals

Despite being full of nutrients essential for cognitive growth, fish are not eaten in sufficient amounts by young children or pregnant and lactating women in many parts of the world. Nutrition-sensitive approaches work to develop innovative, acceptable fish products that can be consumed by all. Small fish are dried and turned into a powder, using simple processing methods that boost the nutritional value of local recipes. The dried fish powder has an extended shelf life, positioning it as a safe and accessible nutritious food for those without access to markets.

Through education programs with all household members on the nutritional value of fish for infant development, while providing hands-on experience in processing fish powder and trialling it in popular local recipes, adoption of fish powder has been successful. In Malawi and Zambia, this nutrient-rich powder is incorporated into vegetable relish and soups. In Myanmar, it is mixed with common ingredients such as chickpea powder or sweet potato powder to add to soup mixes. In Cambodia, it has been processed into a snack product that is classed as a treatment for malnourished children by the Government of Cambodia and UNICEF. In Bangladesh and India, chopped dried small small fish is used to make condiments, like fish chutney.

Low-cost Solar Technologies To Improve Food Safety And Reduce Loss And Waste

Nutrition-sensitive approaches led to the development of solar ‘tents’ to improve the drying of fish in Malawi, helping improve the speed, quality and safety of dried small fish that are traded regionally.

Traditionally, many women dry fish in the open air before taking them to market. This takes up to two days and is challenged by poor weather, pests and the excessive use of salt and chemicals. Community-based solar tents, resembling greenhouses, are made from clear plastic stretched over large wooden structures. The tents are designed with drying racks and proper aeration, enabling better and faster drying of more fish while eliminating the use of chemicals. Just a few hours in the solar tent can be enough to dry fish. Not only do the solar tents help women get fish to the market quicker with less labor; fish traders get higher prices for cleaner, better quality products.

This innovation is estimated to have improved the livelihoods of up to 250,000 women engaged in fish processing, particularly fish drying, in Malawi. Scaling solar tents throughout Africa provides a promising opportunity to transform the lives of women who account for 60 percent of those working in aquatic food supply chains.

Holistic Policy Transforms School Children’s Health

Although India is the world’s second largest fish-producing country, domestic fish consumption is only one-quarter of the global average. Women and children, in particular, often do not have access to any aquatic foods. In 2020, WorldFish signed an agreement with the Department of Women and Child Development in the coastal state Odisha to support a pilot nutrition program that includes fish and fish-based products into 50 rural mother and child centers. This decision was supported by evidence that fish-based products, such as powder and fish chutney made with dried small fish, are able to address malnutrition. The results will lead to the efforts being scaled up in the state.

Busting Gender Myths Put Women In Charge Of Aquatic Food Resources

Nutrition-sensitive policies have transformed women’s livelihoods in Odisha, enabling them to engage in polyculture in village water tanks across the state. These traditionally restricted areas were opened up for the community, and women were encouraged to stock and harvest fish, both large and small species. The larger fish are sold for income, while the small fish are consumed by the households, improving livelihoods through better income, as well as improving food and nutrition security. Over 65,000 households are now benefiting from the engagement of women in aquatic food production. Women have reported having greater participation in household matters, in making decisions with regards to income and food distribution, and having income for other expenses, including schooling of their children.

Seaweed A New Frontier For Nutritious Food And Sustainable Livelihoods

In place since 2017, a fishing ban along the Naf River in Bangladesh has left fishers and aquatic food supply chain workers in surrounding communities without a stable source of income. Seaweed farming has become a new frontier because of its simple techniques and inexpensive equipment. In fact, seaweed requires no feed, grows fast, absorbs carbon and is easy to harvest. Seaweed farming is providing a decent livelihood alternative during the fishing ban. The seaweed sector is still in its infancy and further research is underway to examine its nutritional value and acceptability as a local food.

06/08/2021 8:00 AM |Add a comment
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