Oceans will be key to future food security - new expert report

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A new report estimates that the ocean could provide six times more food than it does today – including more than two-thirds of the protein needed to feed the future world population – provided it is sustainably managed.

The report, The Future of Food from the Sea, examines the current status and future potential of food production from the ocean and the opportunities for achieving the Sustainable Development Goal on Zero Hunger through ocean-based food.

It is the first of a series of “Blue Papers” commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group comprising the heads of government from 15 countries. The papers aim to summarise scientific evidence and provide decision-makers with an overview of the challenges and opportunities for the sustainable use of ocean resources.

One of the new report’s key findings is that smarter management of wild marine fisheries and marine aquaculture (mariculture) could result in a six-fold increase in food production from the ocean. This would equate to more than two-thirds of the protein needed to feed a global population expected to reach almost 10 billion people in 2050, and – the report continues – it can happen in tandem with efforts to restore the health of ocean ecosystems.

“This report adds to the growing body of evidence that shows the importance of aquatic foods for providing healthy people and a healthy planet,” said Dr Shakuntala Thilsted, Global Research Leader on Value Chains and Nutrition at WorldFish, and a member of the High Level Panel’s Expert Group. “If we manage aquatic resources well – be they in the oceans or inland – we can be sure to provide future generations with a source of safe, sustainable and nutritious food, ensuring we can feed billions and nourish nations.”

The report notes that food from the ocean plays a unique role in sustainable food security for five reasons:

  • Climate change - many forms of aquatic foods from the ocean have lower greenhouse gas footprints compared with land-based animal-source foods.
  • Feed efficiency - compared with production systems for land-based animal-source foods, the production of marine-based foods is much more efficient when considering feed inputs, and some species cultivated in the ocean do not require feed inputs at all (i.e. unfed mariculture).
  • Production potential - unlike land-based food production, cultivating food from the sea is not limited by constraints such as land and water availability.
  • Nutrition - foods from the ocean provide multiple essential, highly bioavailable micronutrients: vitamins, minerals and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids which are not found in plant-source foods.
  • Accessibility - foods from the ocean are readily available to most coastal populations and are an affordable, nutritious and often preferred source of protein for many low-income coastal countries.

However, meeting the food production potential of the ocean will require major global policy shifts, including:

  • reducing overfishing of wild fish stocks, which is driven by illegal fishing, capacity enhancing subsidies, a lack of alternative livelihoods, a lack of incentives to protect the underlying resources, poor local and institutional governance and suboptimal management; and
  • sustainably expanding mariculture in a manner that minimises environmental and social impacts, including through the cultivation of unfed farmed species such as bivalves and seaweeds; and expand mariculture of species such as finfish and shrimp can contribute significantly to food production, but is challenged by dependence on fishmeal and fish oil as critical feed ingredients. This highlights the importance of identifying and scaling adequate feed alternatives

The Future of Food from the Sea was launched during the International Symposium on Fisheries Sustainability in Rome, Italy, recently, an event co-sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WorldFish. Click to read the Summary for decision-makers or the full report here.

A total of 16 Blue Papers will be published by June 2020 and will be used by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy to produce a set of recommendations for the 2020 UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, the same month. Themes of the forthcoming Blue Papers include the expected impacts of climate change on the ocean economy; fair, equitable and sustainable use of marine genetic resources; pollution; and ocean finance.