Nourishing the future: Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted on the untapped potential of aquatic foods

By Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, Director for Nutrition, Health and Food Security Impact Area Platform, CGIAR | April 16, 2024

In the wake of escalating food insecurity and malnutrition, amplified by the war in Ukraine and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the call for a radical transformation of our global food systems has never been more urgent.

The world’s heavy reliance on a narrow selection of staple crops –rice, wheat, maize, potato, soybeans, and sugarcane – accounts for over 75% of our plant-derived energy intake. This precarious dependency not only threatens our resilience to geopolitical and climate shocks but also neglects the vast potential of diverse, nutritious foods that could fortify our food systems against such vulnerabilities.

Our current global predicament demands a pivot towards more sustainable, resilient, and nutritionally diverse food sources. Among the most overlooked yet vital solutions are aquatic food systems. Rich in biodiversity, aquatic ecosystems – managed sustainably – offer a wide array of nutrient-dense foods, from fish to algae, that could contribute to global nutritional needs while exerting lower environmental impacts compared to traditional agriculture.

Yet, despite the clear advantages, aquatic foods remain on the periphery of global food policy and dietary recommendations. The war in Ukraine, highlighting the fragility of our reliance on a few staple grains, should serve as a wake-up call. The conflict has not just disrupted the supply of these staple crops but has also spotlighted the broader issue of food systems vulnerability in the face of geopolitical tensions and climate change.

Aquatic foods, produced sustainably and in harmony with nature, provide a viable pathway to diversifying our diets and strengthening food and nutrition security. Moreover, aquatic foods have the potential to revolutionize our diets. They can introduce a variety of flavours and nutrients to our meals, enriching our culinary traditions and improving our overall health. From the rich, omega-3 laden flesh of fatty fish to the mineral-packed offerings of seaweed, the aquatic world is a treasure trove of nutritional wealth. Diversifying our diets with these foods can help mitigate the risks of diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, which are rampant in societies subsisting on a narrow range of staple crops.

Furthermore, the cultivation and harvesting of aquatic foods often require less land and freshwater than terrestrial food production, making them a sustainable choice in an era of dwindling natural resources.

In light of the escalating challenges, it’s time for a paradigm shift in how we view and utilize aquatic foods. This calls for substantial investments in research and development, infrastructure, and policy reform, aimed at integrating aquatic food systems into the mainstream of global food and nutrition security strategies. It also necessitates a concerted effort to overcome the logistical and perceptual barriers that have traditionally sidelined these foods from our plates.

Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted. Image: CGIAR.

The harvesting, cultivation and consumption of aquatic foods present a sustainable solution to our food and nutrition security crisis. Not only do they offer a rich source of essential nutrients, but they also have a lower environmental footprint than many terrestrial food sources. Aquatic ecosystems, when managed sustainably, can provide a continuous supply of nutritious food with minimal impact on the environment. This sustainable approach to food production is crucial in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, which are increasingly threatening the stability of our food systems.

The benefits of integrating aquatic foods into our diets extend beyond nutrition, health and environmental sustainability. They also offer significant economic opportunities, particularly for communities in coastal and riverine areas. Small-scale fisheries and aquaculture can provide livelihoods for millions of people, empowering communities and fostering economic growth. By investing in the sustainable development of aquatic food systems, we can create jobs, boost local economies, and support the livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, many of which have depended on fisheries for millenia.

Indeed, aquatic foods serve as a vital link between the past and the present, marking them as essential not only for sustenance but also as pillars of cultural identity. These foods, integral to festivals, rituals, and the daily fabric of life, showcase the culinary diversity and rich traditions that knit communities together across the globe. From ancient fishing techniques handed down through generations to culinary methods steeped in history, aquatic foods embody values of abundance, purity, and the cyclical nature of life that resonate across different cultures. Integrating this vast reservoir of traditional wisdom, practices, and values into our approach to aquatic foods is a key part of preserving the biodiversity of our waters and for the continuation of the communities that depend on them.

But integrating aquatic foods into the core of our global food systems requires concerted efforts across multiple fronts. It necessitates not only the acknowledgment of the nutritional and environmental benefits these foods offer but also a comprehensive strategy to address the barriers to their broader adoption. This strategy involves policy reform, infrastructure development, investment in research, and a shift in consumer perception.

Policy and investment: Governments and international bodies must play a pivotal role in crafting policies that encourage the sustainable development of aquatic food systems. This includes funding research into sustainable and diverse aquaculture practices, improving fisheries management, and creating incentives for farmers and fisherfolk to adopt environmentally friendly practices. Investments are also needed in infrastructure to ensure that aquatic foods can be processed, stored, and transported efficiently, reducing post-harvest losses and making these foods more accessible to consumers worldwide.

Research and innovation: Scientific research is crucial for advancing our understanding of how to optimize the nutritional potential of aquatic foods and minimize their environmental impact. Innovations in aquaculture technology, such as recirculating systems and polycultures, can increase productivity while reducing ecological footprints. Furthermore, research into underutilized species of fish, algae, and other aquatic organisms could unlock new dietary resources, broadening our nutritional palette and offering resilience against crop failures or market fluctuations.

Consumer education and market development: Changing dietary habits is no small feat. It requires a robust effort to educate consumers about the benefits of aquatic foods, not only for their health but also for the planet. Marketing strategies that highlight the taste, versatility, and nutritional value of these foods can help shift consumer preferences. Culinary innovation, from chefs and food industry professionals, can introduce consumers to appealing ways to incorporate aquatic foods into their diets, making the unfamiliar familiar.

Sustainability and equity: As we turn to aquatic foods to diversify our diets and strengthen our food systems, sustainability must be at the heart of this transition. This means adopting practices that preserve aquatic ecosystems and ensure the equitable distribution of resources. Protecting the rights and livelihoods of small-scale fishers and aquaculture operators is essential, as is ensuring that communities dependent on these ecosystems for their food and income are not marginalized by industrial-scale operations.

Global cooperation: The challenges and opportunities presented by aquatic foods transcend national boundaries, calling for global cooperation and knowledge sharing. International collaborations can facilitate the exchange of best practices, support research and development efforts, and coordinate policy approaches to promote the sustainable use of aquatic resources. By working together, countries can harness the potential of aquatic foods to address global food security and nutritional needs in an environmentally responsible manner.

The UN Climate Change High-Level Champions in December 2023 at COP28 published the Call to Action, “Transforming Food Systems for People, Nature, and Climate.” In it, they state a clear intention to support the transition to and scaling up of sustainable approaches to food production, explicitly including sustainable aquaculture and climate-resilient management of capture fisheries. This commitment is part of a broader vision to drive significant, measurable progress across food systems by 2030, in alignment with global efforts to mitigate climate change, enhance biodiversity, and ensure food and nutrition security for all. In addition, aquatic foods are one of the five key sectors identified by the Ocean Breakthroughs which set concrete pathways to help deliver on climate and nature goals. As part of this, the Breakthroughts have set a target to provide at least $4bn per year to support resilient aquatic food systems that will contribute to healthy, regenerative ecosystems, and sustain the food and nutrition security for three billion people.

Aquatic foods represent a largely untapped resource with the potential to transform our food systems for the better. They offer a sustainable, nutritious, and resilient alternative to traditional crop-based diets, with the power to improve global food and nutrition security, support economic development, and protect our planet. However, realizing this potential will require a shift in perspective, significant investment, and collaborative effort on a global scale that respects and integrates the wealth of traditional wisdom and cultural practices surrounding these foods.

By embracing the diversity and abundance of aquatic foods, and acknowledging the centuries-old knowledge that has sustained communities across the world, we can pave the way for a future where our diets are as rich in variety as the ecosystems that sustain them. The journey is complex and the challenges are many, but the rewards—a well-nourished population, a thriving economy, and a sustainable planet—are well worth the effort.

Main image: mishab myladan/ Unsplash.

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