Linking aquatic foods with food and nutrition in policy

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Cooking a traditional fish dinner in Bangladesh. Photo by CBFM-Fem Com Bangladesh.

Research reviews policy instruments in fourteen countries for links between aquatic foods and food and nutrition security, finding that food insecure countries were more likely to recognize the intersectional benefits of aquatic foods in national policies.  

While the relationship between aquatic foods and food and nutrition security is increasingly recognized, national policy instruments often fail to acknowledge or support the connection. Greater political commitment is needed to explicitly link aquatic food systems with food security and public health in order to support nutritious, sustainable diets for all.

Despite the tangible links between aquatic foods and food and nutrition security, a new research study has found that governments often fail to recognize the multiple benefits and dynamism of aquatic food systems.

Realizing the need for a holistic food systems-based approach, WorldFish researchers are calling for aquatic foods to be considered within the broader food systems framework, which examines all the nutritional, environmental and socioeconomic aspects of food from production through to consumption.

Food systems approaches work to recognize the critical – and often undervalued – role of aquatic foods in nourishing and empowering the poor and vulnerable. Aquatic foods play a vital role in providing healthy diets and livelihoods to millions of people around the world, particularly those in low- and middle- income countries.

In a bid to understand the representation of aquatic food systems in policy, researchers reviewed policy instruments from a range of sectors in fourteen countries that mentioned either aquatic foods or food and nutrition security, examining where links between the two were explicitly stated and under what context.

The paper, Identifying Policy Best-Practices to Support the Contribution of Aquatic Foods to Food and Nutrition Security, found that while 76 percent of the reviewed policies and documents acknowledged a link between the two sectors, only 20 percent of laws did.

“This finding may be due, in part, to the contemporary nature of the policy and strategy documents in relation to the laws, which tend to date back further,” said Eddie Allison, the study’s co-author and WorldFish’s interim director of science and research.

Food and nutrition have historically been given low political priority and suffered from a lack of commitments from national governments. Going forward, there is a need for renewed interest in shaping government regulations that acknowledge and promote the critical link between aquatic foods and food and nutrition security, with the aim of improving access to nutrient-rich foods via a holistic food systems approach, he explained.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done before governments recognize food and nutrition alongside economic and environmental priorities in fisheries and aquaculture policies. A first step is acknowledgement of the link, followed by the development of targets that ensure the equitable allocation of resources to improve food supply and access,” said Anna Farmery, the publication's lead author and a researcher fellow at the University of Wollongong.

Best policies go beyond production

Woman prepares fish in the Barotse floodplain of Zambia. Photo by Clayton Smith.
Woman prepares fish in the Barotse floodplain of Zambia. Photo by Clayton Smith.

Countries in the review were selected on the basis of being a major producer or consumer of aquatic foods, or those where aquatic foods were integral to food and nutrition securityit was assumed that countries most dependent on aquatic foods, whether nutritionally or economically, would be the most likely to refer to them in national policies.

Where links were established, they were often made in the context of productioncommitments to increasing production in aquatic food systems in order to improve food availability or access. However, production is only one of many elements to consider in aquatic food systems.

“A narrow emphasis on production does not necessarily translate to improved access or consumptionthere needs to be a broader focus on food systems as a whole,” explained Allison.

The other predominant linkage was through livelihoods and economic security, with policy instruments citing the ability for rural poor to earn income and employment through aquatic food systems. Yet additional income does not necessarily translate to better diets or improved human healththere is a need to bring aquatic foods, livelihoods and food security under a cohesive food systems framework to ensure more equitable outcomes.

The paper’s authors considered the most comprehensive policies to be those that addressed the multi-sectoral implications of fisheries and aquaculture, such as policies outlining strategies for climate mitigation and economic development alongside actions to improve food and nutrition security.

The study found that a high percentage of relevant policies in Indonesia, Tanzania, Vanuatu, Senegal, Bangladesh and Samoa established links between aquatic foods and food and nutrition security in diverse food system contexts, with over three quarters of their reviewed national instruments articulating a link.

Conversely, Chile and Japan were found to link aquatic foods to food security the least in national policy instruments.

“Food-secure countries tend to be less likely to focus on the health benefits of aquatic foods in policies, in contrast to many developing countries that specifically recognize the importance of aquatic foods as a source of protein and micronutrients that promote growth and prevent malnutrition,” said Farmery.

Policies must ultimately be reframed to recognize the connection between aquatic foods and fair, sustainable food outcomes, generating the political will needed to foster a food systems transformation, she said.

Kate McMahon

Junior Consultant, Digital Journalism