Ushering in a shared prosperity through aquatic food systems

4 minutes read
Aquatic food systems offer diverse solutions for tackling malnutrition, lowering the environmental footprint of our food systems and lifting millions of people out of poverty
  • WorldFish’s Director General Essam Yassin Mohammed argues that aquatic food systems can be leveraged to ensure both people and planet obtain their maximum potential for well-being 

  • Yet misaligned global priorities and fisheries subsides currently support widening inequality and unsustainable resource use 

Aquatic food systems have transformative potential for sustainable development. They offer diverse solutions for tackling malnutrition, lowering the environmental footprint of our food systems and lifting millions of people out of poverty. Ultimately, a sustainable and equitable transition to aquatic food-based diets can deliver better outcomes for both people and planet.  

Yet there is a pressing need for additional research, innovation and investments to usher in such a momentous food systems transformation, and time is urgent. Hunger has risen dramatically in the fallout from COVID-19, with soaring inflation and serious disruptions to fish supply chains hitting low-income populations the hardest. Moreover, only one in three fish stocks are managed sustainably—jeopardizing food security, ecosystems and livelihoods.  

Aquatic food systems are often understood within their relation to the blue economy, which examines aquatic resources in the context of sustainable economic development and the benefits they provide to millions around the globe, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries.  

Unfortunately, thus far, the pursuit of the blue economy has largely been driven by profits, and governments and the private sector have paid less attention to the many societal benefits of the aquatic food sector. But in order to achieve a shared prosperity through aquatic food systems, global priorities must be reconsidered.  

When I say shared prosperity, I mean ensuring that benefits are equitably distributed among small-scale fishers, fish farmers and their communities, along with the three billion people globally who don’t have access to nutritious diets.  

Historically, the notion of ‘prosperity’ has been dominated by socio-political and economic indicators rather than a measure of human flourishing. I instead define prosperity as both a process and outcome, where aquatic ecosystems and the people who depend on them can attain their maximum well-being potential—with special focus on those often overlooked or forgotten in development initiatives.  

To achieve this goal, we must eliminate systemic barriers that undermine individual and collective wellbeing and capabilities for flourishing, working to create meaningful employment and income opportunities along aquatic food supply chains for ‘the many.’ This also means recognizing small-scale and artisanal fish workers’ current contributions on a global scale.  

Consider that small-scale fisheries produce over 50 percent of the world’s fish catch, the majority of which is consumed locally in low- and middle-income countries, yet these fishers and fish workers often lack national recognition and are left out of policy and investment decisions that impact their livelihoods.  

At WorldFish, we aim to make the contributions of small-scale aquatic food production systems visible on a global stage. We’re already making steps towards this ambitious goal under the Illuminating Hidden Harvestsinitiative, a multi-year collaborative study between Duke University, the FAO and WorldFish, which is intended to generate evidence on the socioeconomic contributions of artisanal fisheries. 

In revealing their true value, we can finally pay homage to small-scale fish workers and move beyond equality, instead of fostering a positive bias towards those who are so often left behind. This starts with realigning investments and incentives and reconsidering our priorities—who exactly is the blue economy supposed to benefit?  

Reimagining investments and incentives 

As absolute inequality has grown exponentially within the last few decades, and the wealth gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, it is paramount to ensure our natural resources are harnessed in a way that uplifts the poor and vulnerable.  

Yet about 86 percent of global fisheries subsidies are funneled to large-scale commercial operations, although subsidies are given in the context of alleviating poverty. 

These subsidies support the pillaging of our oceans, continuing the assault on nature and our aquatic ecosystems.  

It is beyond our moral imperative to rethink subsidies—not dissolving them entirely, but rather using them as a tool to nudge people and industries towards sustainable practices by discouraging harmful practices or rewarding good practices. 

Therefore, as the World Trade Organization convenes an inter-ministerial meeting next week, it is important that we collectively bring an end to harmful and capacity-enhancing fisheries subsidies. 

By making scientifically informed investment decisions in the blue economy, we can realize a world where aquatic ecosystems and their dependents can flourish. Using disaggregated data, which shows the individual contributions of small-scale fishers, women and youth, we can also eliminate systemic barriers to participating in and benefiting from the sector.  

This can all be achieved while respecting ecological boundaries, leading to regenerative aquatic food systems that generally have a lower environmental footprint than terrestrial agri-food systems, and ensuring that vulnerable communities disproportionately benefit from aquatic resources.  

Ultimately, it’s finally time to leverage aquatic foods to usher in a shared prosperity where both people and planet can flourish.  

Essam Yassin Mohammed

WorldFish Director General & CGIAR’s Senior Director of Aquatic Food Systems