Nutrition policy panel points to the power of aquatic foods

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Aquatic foods are rich in nutrients necessary for cognitive development and human health. Photo by Yousuf Tushar.

A blog Piece by Aniss Khalid, WorldFish

Harnessing aquatic foods through the sustainable growth of aquaculture deserves more attention in responding to the global call to transform food systems toward more nutritious and resilient diets for all, said experts in a recent panel discussion hosted by WorldFish and the Global Panel of Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (GLOPAN). 

As the world faces the enormous challenge of producing enough food to feed 10 billion people by 2050 within the planetary boundaries, transforming food systems to provide affordable, sustainable, and nutritious diets is paramount. Aquatic food systems, including aquaculture and fisheries, provide an untapped potential to sustainably enhance food security, increase the accessibility of nutrient-rich foods, and provide employment opportunities, especially in low- and middle-income countries. 

With aquaculture growing faster than any other food production sector, the panel of nutrition policy and research experts discussed how sound scientific knowledge can guide its inclusive and sustainable growth. 

The virtual event marked the launch of GLOPAN’s first policy brief on aquatic food systems, ‘Harnessing aquaculture for healthy diets.’ GLOPAN is an independent international group of leaders who hold, or have held, high office and show strong personal commitment to improving nutrition. With research contributions from WorldFish, the policy brief provides evidence-based recommendations to help governments in low- and middle-income countries develop policies that include aquatic foods as part of high-quality diets that are safe, affordable, and accessible. 

“Aquaculture has a clear role to play in supporting the challenge of providing healthy diets which are produced more sustainably, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. However, it is often overlooked in the global discourse on food system transformation,”

Sir John Beddington, Chair, Global Panel

Harnessing aquaculture for healthy people and planet  

“It’s food from below water that will feed the future,” said WorldFish’s director general Gareth Johnstone to open the virtual event. “Aquatic foods offer a critical solution for the two billion people worldwide who lack access to nutritious diets, with women and children poised to benefit most.” 

In many low- and middle-income countries, aquatic foods are already the most affordable and accessible animal-source food produced. Compared to other animal-source foods, aquatic foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and other micronutrients essential to cognitive development and human health, he added. 

Nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture improve diet diversity and diet quality, especially for women and children. Photo by Filip Milovac.

Aquaculture encompasses diverse systems in marine and inland waters as well as homestead ponds that can be developed, alongside fisheries, to boost local production of nutrient-rich foods, said Shakuntala Thilsted, WorldFish’s global lead for nutrition and public health. 

The panelists discussed how nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture encourage the cultivation of diverse fruits and vegetable crops alongside small indigenous fish species. A growing body of evidence shows these approaches improve dietary diversity and the health outcomes for the rural poor, especially for women and children in the first 1000 days of life. 

“These approaches allow for the production of large quantities of diverse food in a sustainable and efficient manner that encourage household consumption of nutrient-rich foods in many low- and middle-income countries,” said Andrew Thorne-Lyman, co-author of the policy brief. 

When managed sustainably with targeted investments, aquaculture promotes planetary health. Aquatic foods have a low carbon footprint that can be further reduced with advances in technology and innovation, added panelist Patrick Webb, Professor of Nutrition at Tufts University. 

“Efforts such as polyculture pond approaches that see multiple fish species reared together and alternative fish feed options are paramount to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the speed of innovation and transformation in food, land and water systems,” he said. 

 Creating an enabling environment for aquaculture production 

Investments into cost-effective strategies are critical to equip value chain actors with the knowledge and facilities needed for improved aquaculture productivity. Photo by Sara Fouad.

Panelists called for additional research and investment in aquaculture and its related value chains to overcome production challenges, highlighting work to lower operational costs and encourage the participation of diverse actors. 

Expensive aquaculture inputs like fingerlings and imported fish feed can put aquaculture out of reach for the poor and vulnerable. Investments in technologies and policies to promote locally-available fish feed sources, and capacity building opportunities can improve entry into the sector, said Sloans Chimatiro, president of the Policy Research Network for Fisheries and Aquaculture, told the audience of global representatives from public, private and academic sectors. 

“Improving best practice management guidelines and diversifying markets can also build food systems resilience against socio-ecological shocks,” he added. 

Prohibitive gender barriers persist in aquaculture, despite women accounting for nearly half the global workforce in fish and aquatic foods production. Women primarily work in fish processing and retail, lacking the resources and training to rear fish independently in their own homestead ponds, said panelist Sunila Rai, a program coordinator at the Agriculture and Forestry University of Nepal, works to advance women’s participation in aquaculture farming through outreach initiatives including self-help groups. 

“My work started by encouraging the participation of new women farmers in small-scale homestead fish farming in Nepal. They were trained in fish farming, taken to field visits to observe established fish farms, and taught advanced technology. We helped to build women’s leadership skills and self-confidence to empower them out of the kitchen,” said Rai. 

Situating aquatic foods in the global research agenda 

Keeping an open dialogue with stakeholders is essential to understanding aquaculture as a novel sector. Photo by Sara Fouad.

Maintaining an open dialogue with stakeholders from research institutions, policymakers from governmental and intergovernmental organizations, and major donors and investors is essential to understanding the broad set of implications aquaculture has as a novel sector. However, improved multi-sector and interdisciplinary collaboration is needed to mobilize interest in aquaculture and rightfully position it within the global agricultural research agenda, the panel members emphasized. 

“It is important to understand the place of aquaculture in African policy architecture. Policymakers tend to only focus on grain and terrestrial livestock; perceptions around food security equated to ‘grain security’ must be challenged,” said Chimatiro. 

Policymakers need to be aware of the multiple policy ‘wins’ that aquaculture and sustainable fisheries can offer. In the lead up to the UN Food Systems Summit, WorldFish’s director general recommended that the health and nutritional benefits of aquaculture be used to inform policies and decision-making at the highest level. 

“As we move toward the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit this year, evidence-based recommendations must guide policy development to ensure aquatic foods are an essential part of a food systems transformation for healthy people and planet. Sustainable aquaculture—as an important component of aquatic food systems—is critical to meeting shared national and global aspirations for establishing healthy, nutritious, sustainable, and inclusive food systems capable of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,”

Gareth Johnstone, Director General, WorldFish