According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme, 135 million people around the world are experiencing emergency levels of acute hunger, which means they are only one meal away from starvation.
Population growth, resource shortages, conflicts (which are often caused by competition for, and scarcity of, resources), displacement (often due to conflict), environmental and climate changes, and increased risk of famine are all factors contributing to acute hunger. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this, causing food insecurity and malnutrition rates to grow.
Unfortunately, goodwill alone will not solve acute hunger. While food and humanitarian relief are a part of the solution, sustainable food production systems, like aquaculture, are a missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to highly nutritious and sustainable food sources.
Fish and seafood is an animal protein that is rich in micronutrients like vitamin B12, potassium and, especially when compared to other meat products, Omega-3, but only two percent of the world food supply comes from the ocean.
The easy answer would be to increase reliance on the sea as a source of nutritious protein, but it’s not that simple. Overfishing and concern for wild fish stocks, as well as issues like by-catch are all good reasons to find a sustainable alternative.
Numbers of wild-caught fish reached their peak in the 1990s, and since that time aquaculture has become a popular way to bolster fish resources. Between 2000 and 2012, the rate of production of aquaculture doubled, and it will need to double again by 2050 to meet global demand.
Luckily, aquaculture is the fastest growing agri-food sector in the world with a growth rate of 8.8 percent. This is good news since global demand for seafood like shrimp and prawns is becoming unsustainable. Overfishing by commercial fisheries, and its potential to impact biodiversity, might be best addressed by switching to growing fish rather than catching them.
Aquaculture is really an industrial process: the rearing, stocking, and breeding of aquatic animals, and the cultivation of aquatic plants for food and commercial use. But by its nature, aquaculture can also be an environmentally responsible source of food, and better still, can play a substantial role in addressing global food insecurity.
The process uses controlled conditions to cultivate both freshwater and saltwater populations. Alternatively known as aquafarming, one could say that it “farms” many species – fish like crustaceans, molluscs, bass, tilapia, salmon, trout, and others, as well as aquatic plants including algae and seaweed.
Aquaculture can take the form of open-net pen and cage systems and can be used to produce food for human consumption and for carnivorous fish, and it is also used for stock restoration – to replenish depleted and endangered wild fish populations. Aquaculture can be a great way to feed the world and nurture biodiversity in the ecosystem.
One of the most significant advantages of aquaculture is its flexibility. It can be practised wherever there is a body of water. It generates jobs wherever it goes, too, bringing income sources to communities that are often in real need.
The opportunities in aquaculture include employment in hatcheries, fish-feed manufacturing, nursing, and raising the population, logistics, marketing, and retail to consumers, all of which can contribute to the economic strength of a community while also feeding them. More often than not, aquaculture is a local operation serving local markets.
There are, however, concerns about the viability of aquaculture and potential negative impacts.
Aquaculture can lead to the propagation of invasive species if fish escape; and where it is not sustainable it can threaten coastal ecosystems with waste from the fish, with antibiotics and fish food, as well as parasites and disease, all of which contaminate the water and threaten both farmed and wild populations.
And when not carefully monitored and regulated, aquaculture can also threaten the balance of the area ecosystem and imperil food supplies for wild species. Farming also requires resources to sustain it, like fishmeal and oil, which actually take more fish to produce than just using the fish as feed.
Part of ensuring sustainable aquaculture is to measure the amount of feed required to raise a population. To be sustainable, aquaculture should use less fish to feed than it produces, otherwise referred to as the fish in, fish out ratio.
Most people would be disappointed to know that many marine fish, such as salmon and trout, and crustaceans like shrimp, have a ratio greater than one. Alternatively, however, many freshwater fish like tilapia, catfish and milkfish can be produced at a ratio less than one.
A process like integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) uses less input resources and no chemicals or antibiotics, making it a preferred approach. IMTA also produces less waste discharge, thus reducing its environmental impacts. The catch? IMTA has a lower output, and is difficult to scale up.
Waste control is an important consideration as well. Facilities can release organic waste into waterways if effective waste management and treatment strategies are not employed. Aquaculture facilities should always put best practices into action and should be established only in locations sanctioned by spatial planning and zoning laws.
One of the best ways to promote sustainability in aquaculture is to invest in new technologies that ensure transparency and efficiency, as well as reduce dependency on wild feed. Issues beyond the operation need to be considered so as to understand the impact it has on the environment and local communities.
Globally, Asia has become the front runner in aquaculture production, as countries work to ensure that the dietary needs of its people are being met. China, which is where aquaculture is said to have originated, leads the way. In 2016, China produced 63,700,000 metric tons, followed by Indonesia with 16,600,000 tons and India with 5,703,002 tons. The United States ranked 17th with 444,369 tons, while Canada ranked 24th with 200,765 tons.
MOWI is the world’s largest supplier of farm-raised salmon. It is located in the cold clean waters of the North Pacific where salmon thrive and uses an integrated system of brood stock selection, freshwater hatcheries, saltwater farms, and state-of-the art processing plants to meet demand.
MOWI prioritizes sustainability in its operations and works with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As of 2019, its Campbell River, British Columbia farms are ASC certified, as are its Broughton Archipelago farms.
Given the potential of aquaculture to bolster the global food supply chain, a greater number of companies are taking advantage of the practice, but not all operations prioritize sustainability as well as MOWI and some simply cannot as it is uncompetitive for them to do so.
One of the best ways to promote sustainable aquaculture is to reward it by offering resources and financial support that can help it to be increasingly competitive AND sustainable. Education and training support in zoning, water supply, sustainable wastewater treatment and facilities management can provide a foundation from which sustainability can grow.
Consumers can also be part of the change by buying and eating sustainable seafood. A recent documentary on Netflix, Seaspiracy, shows the dark side of the fishing industry, including aquaculture, and what is deemed “sustainable,” and while it issues some valuable warnings, the proposed solution of boycotting fish and seafood is not viable.
While advanced countries might enjoy a choice of food that allows them not to eat fish and seafood, expecting developing nations – often depending on the sea as a source of protein or just to keep hunger at bay – to eliminate these foods from their diets is thoughtless and unfair.
Instead of proposing a ban on fish and seafood, and while continuing to publicize the weak sustainability record and accountability of the fishing industry, people should demand that the bar be raised. Standards must be set higher and enforced so that consumers can regain faith in the labels and certifications of produce from the sea.
That way, the word sustainable can once again begin to mean something.