What about fish? Bringing fisheries into the food policy global discourse.

Monday, February 11, 2019
Sarah Zoubek, Associate Director of the WFPC
Fish can be a stronger tool in combatting global hunger and malnutrition.

Did you know that fisheries are managed largely through environmental management and economic policies? Such policies seek to optimize the economic benefits of fisheries, and to conserve charismatic species such as dolphins and turtles. But, they don’t optimize fisheries management as a crucial element of global food security. We’re working to change that.

Bridging to better policy graphicWe launched the Duke World Food Policy Center just over a year ago to serve as a bridge and connector between different food systems groups. Because, while there are many excellent organizations working on eliminating hunger, obesity, improving agriculture, and enhancing food safety, there are few groups explicitly tasked with forging connections between them and serving as a bridge. This can lead to disconnected, uncoordinated food policy with negative impacts on human and planetary health.

We see fisheries management as an area that needs a “bridging” policy focus. Seafood has the potential to play a much larger role in addressing global food security & nutrition needs. Today, most food policy focuses on land-based agriculture, and until now, seafood has been on the fringe of the global food discourse.  

Fast Facts about Fish/Seafood

  • Globally, 17% of the animal protein we eat comes from seafood.
  • An estimated 90% of the world’s fishers are small scale operations called smallholders, and almost all of them live in developing countries.
  • Smallholder fishers produce almost half of the seafood we consume.
  • Fish is typically more affordable than other animal-source foods.
  • Fish plays an especially important role in countries that are low in animal protein and where staple foods are rice, wheat, corn, roots and tubers.
  • The most important contribution of fish are its multiple micronutrients such as vitamin A, D, and B and calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, iodine, crucial fatty acids such as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These nutrients are essential for cardiovascular and brain health, and in combating anemia, rickets, childhood blindness and stunting, among others.
  • Fish is particularly important to women, infants, and children, who have a higher demand for micronutrients and protein.

We teamed up with Duke environmental policy professors John Virdin and Xavier Basurto, and commissioned a literature review on the contribution of fisheries to global food security. Then we convened a meeting of top faculty, economist Pawan Patil from the World Bank, and representatives from USAID and Environmental Defense Fund. We presented our report “Contribution of Fisheries to Food & Nutrition Security,” to inform the conversation.

Contribution of Fisheries to Food & Nutrition SecurityOur report encompasses a thorough scan of peer-reviewed articles, gray literature, and key reports from international organizations. We concluded that:

  • Even though some capture fisheries are overexploited and others at threat to join them, with the appropriate governance reforms, most could recover and contribute more to ending hunger and malnutrition.
  • The potential health and nutrition payoff for recovering and sustaining these food production systems has often been missing in the global food policy dialogue.
  • Although overfishing has long been studied as one of the world’s major environmental problems, quantification of its effects on food and nutrition security is lacking.
  • Other key future research topics we suggest include the role of gender dynamics, interactions between fisheries and aquaculture, the distributional consequences of trade, and the climate footprint of fisheries vis-à-vis other food production systems.

We are now working on a synthesis paper with contributions from the attendees from our convening last December on pushing a “fish as food” dialogue internationally – across research, policy, and practice, and highlighting important areas for further investment, such as in data needs.

Growth of Research Publications on the Contribution of Capture Fisheries to Nutrition/Food SecurityIt’s exciting to see a growing momentum behind the idea of including fish and seafood in the global food discourse. This graph shows a quick analysis of the number of research publications on the contribution of capture fisheries to nutrition and food security. And the wonderful thing is there is strong growth in this area in the literature, slowly in 2005/2006, and taking off more in 2010.

Last fall, I joined panelists organized by The World Bank at a side event at the 45th Session of the Committee on World Food Security. The panel was called “Improving Food Security & Nutrition Through Innovative Fish-Based Agri-Food Solutions: Women leading highly nutritious fish- based solutions: Exploring existing science and collaborative partnerships.”

Our take home message: for seafood to contribute successfully, policies and management must be nutrition-sensitive.