Aquatic Resources – Food Security
This year, we are celebrating World Oceans Day with the theme “The Oceans: Life and Livelihoods” at a time when the world is ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, negatively impacting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world, especially in developing countries where the majority of the hungry and malnourished live. Oceans’ contribution to food and nutritional security is under threat from climate change and human induced activities such as pollution, over-exploitation of resources, etc. It is our duty to restore oceans to their former glory. A recent study has indicated that sustainable management of oceans can provide six times more food than it is now.
Fish and other aquatic resources, whether sourced from oceans, inland waters or through farming, contribute significantly to the human food basket, with 3 billion people getting at least 20 percent of their animal protein intake from aquatic foods. Not only that, the sector provides livelihoods for some 60 million directly and many more millions indirectly in the value chain. In spite of the fact that aquatic products are a perishable commodity, they are the largest internationally traded food commodity valued at around $160 billion annually. While it is understood by all, including planners and policy makers, that we will have to feed over 2 billion more people in the next 30 years, aquatic resources are often overlooked in food and nutritional security discussions.
Since increasing production from marine capture fisheries is a possibility in the long term with stringent action by all concerned, but not an option in the near term, dependence on aquaculture is increasing. Looking back to the 1960s when I started my career, fisheries were not considered a science. Hardly any importance was given in most developing countries to fisheries research and development, as harvests from natural resources were plentiful and population was low. But times have changed with increasing population and declining resources. People and governments are beginning to understand the importance of fish and aquatic foods in our fight against hunger and malnutrition, evident from the creation of separate ministries for fisheries in some developing countries, including India.
When I was awarded the World Food Prize in 2005, I considered it a recognition of the importance of aquatic resources in our fight against food insecurity in addition to my accomplishments that contributed to development of small-scale aquaculture by rural poor, especially women, leading to their nutritional security and empowerment. This act of the World Food Prize Foundation brought to the world’s attention that fish and aquatic resources are as important as farming terrestrial crops and animals in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Further importance of fish and aquatic products in the overall food basket cannot be overlooked since aquatic products are the cheapest animal protein available to the poor, and farming of aquatic products leaves a smaller carbon footprint compared to production of terrestrial meat.
In earlier years, aquaculture research and development were focused on increasing production in developing countries through farming of large-sized species of fish due to their higher market value. Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted added one more dimension to the importance of aquatic products. Her work has shown that even small fish (some as small as 2-3 inches in length), whether they are from farmed ponds or caught from the oceans, and were being treated as “trash” and converted to animal feeds, are dense in essential vitamins and micronutrients, sometimes more than in large fish. These small fish grown in homestead ponds along with other large-sized species of fish such as carps not only bring cash income to families through sale of large fish species, but families are also able to use the nutrient-dense small fish for home consumption and thereby improve the nutrition of family members.
In 2018, it was estimated around 22 million tons of small fish such as anchovies and sardines were caught from the oceans, and most were converted into animal feed. This is an opportunity to enhance the availability of cheap, quality animal protein to poor households. Let us imagine even five percent of these fish, instead of being converted into animal feed, are used as food for low income people in the form of fish powder, etc. It would mean providing 1 million tons of additional food in fish. This work of Dr. Shakuntala is a game changer, and the World Food Prize Foundation has rightly selected her as its 2021 Laureate. Congratulations to her and the team at WorldFish Center for this outstanding achievement.