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The Leading Voices in Food

E107: Fish Need a Stronger Role in Global Food Security Planning

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January 19, 2021


In a recently released January 2021 paper, scientists urge global policy makers and funders, to think of fish as a solution to food insecurity and malnutrition, not just as a natural resource, that provides income and livelihoods. The research team argues that fish can play a larger role in addressing global hunger and malnutrition, but fisheries governance would need to change. Welcome to the Leading Voices in Food podcast. Our guest today is lead author Abigail Bennett, an assistant professor of Global Inland Fisheries Ecology and Governance at Michigan State University.

Abigail Bennett is assistant professor of global inland fisheries ecology and governance. She studies the role of fisheries in livelihoods and food security around the world. Her research examines how processes such as governance and trade shape the connections between fisheries and human well-being. For example, what kinds of governance arrangements can mitigate negative social and ecological impacts of global trade pressures? How important are fisheries for addressing hunger and malnutrition globally? And, how can we enhance fish value chains to increase access and benefits to women and the rural poor?

In a recently released January 2021 paper, scientists urge global policy makers and funders, to think of fish as a solution to food insecurity and malnutrition, not just as a natural resource, that provides income and livelihoods. The research team argues that fish can play a larger role in addressing global hunger and malnutrition, but fisheries governance would need to change. Welcome to the Leading Voices in Food podcast. Our guest today is lead author Abigail Bennett, an assistant professor of Global Inland Fisheries Ecology and Governance at Michigan State University.

Interview Summary

So let’s dive right in. I’ve got a clarifying question. The paper is titled, “Recognize fish as food in policy discourse and development funding,” so what do you mean by recognized fishes food? Isn’t fish already a food?

Yes, that’s a good question because we do consume most of the fish that we produce. We consume 88% of fish that we produce. So fish is a food, but what we want to say in this paper is that fish can do much more to meet the challenges of global malnutrition and food insecurity.

So why do you think that fish is underrepresented in food and nutrition security policy and in funding priorities?

This is something that people who are working on fisheries and issues of food security have been saying for a while is that in big global discussions on food security and malnutrition that fish doesn’t come up as much as it should. And that policies don’t deal with the contributions of fish to these issues as much as they should.

What we did in this paper is analyze some food security funding and policy discussions, to actually try to discern if that the is case, is fish actually not being discussed as a food, as much as it potentially could be. We looked at funding priorities by the World Bank and regional development banks. And we wanted to know how much of funding that’s directed towards food — so agriculture, fisheries, aquaculture — is targeting fisheries and aquaculture specifically. And so what we found is that the World Bank on average has allocated about 1.8% of its agricultural funding to fisheries and aquaculture. And that’s gone up a little bit in the most recent five years in our dataset. The regional development banks have allocated a bit more, but again, in many years those banks don’t allocate anything to fisheries and aquaculture. And instead all of their funding goes to terrestrial food production systems. So we think that there’s some room there for perhaps more development resources to be targeted towards fisheries and aquaculture and their potential to meet food and nutrition security goals.

We also looked at some high level policy discussions around fisheries and aquaculture to understand to what extent were those discussions looking at fish as a food. And so we analyzed the Committee on Fisheries reports. The Committee on Fisheries is a meeting of FAO member countries that happens about every other year to discuss major policy issues in fisheries and aquaculture. And we analyze the text of the reports from those meetings. And what we found is that issues of food and nutrition are marginally discussed in those meetings, and other issues are emphasized much more, such as economic and trade issues, and environmental and sustainability issues, which are of course important, but fish doesn’t seem to be considered as a source of food and nutrition in those discussions as much as it potentially could be. So those are just a couple of examples of the types of venues that we looked at to try to really ask this question in an empirical way of is fish being considered a food in this high level policy and funding forum.

So, Abby, it sounds like there’s, a great role that fish could play in addressing global hunger and malnutrition. And certainly you need to work on the financial resource support piece and the policy dialogue. What are some other steps that could be taken to advance the role of fish in addressing global hunger and malnutrition?

Yes, so really broadly, changing the way we conceptualize fish to thinking about it as a food rather than just a natural resource that’s important for economic development or something that needs conservation policy can really lead us to a number of concrete research and policy actions that I think can kind of pave the way to raising the contributions of fish to food and nutrition security.

In the paper that you mentioned, we laid out four pillars of how we might be able to do this. The first one that we discuss is the need to improve metrics around the contribution of fish to food and nutrition security. Key metrics, information and data that we’re missing, include information about the nutrient content of many species of fish. We need metrics to influence policy because we have to be able to demonstrate what the potential impact would be, if we focus on fish as a contributor to food and nutrition security, and implement policies that target that.

The second pillar that we explored in the paper is to promote nutrition sensitive fish food systems. This builds off of efforts to improve metrics and understand the specific nutrients and micronutrients that are contained in different fish species. It could allow us to do things like tailoring fisheries and aquaculture production systems to meet specific nutrient deficiencies in specific places or specific populations. Promoting nutrition sensitive food systems also encourages us to look at the whole food system. And so looking not just at how fish is produced and its economic benefits, but also looking at how it travels through a value chain, how it’s processed and what that does to its nutritional properties, issues of food safety and hygiene. And then right down to understanding how households are able to utilize fish and actually consume it. By positioning food in this lens of nutrition sensitive fish food systems, I think there’s an opportunity to uncover a lot of different types of policy interventions that can utilize fish that’s being already produced to better meet nutritional needs of specific populations.

Another pillar is governing distribution. Right now we don’t know a whole lot about what happens to fish once it’s harvested. We know a bit about the dynamics and direction of international trade and fisheries, but at sub-national and especially at local levels, we don’t know a lot about where fish is going and how the benefits from fisheries are distributed.

The final pillar is to situate fish in a food systems framework. And the emphasis here is bring fish into this broader discussion about global food systems which focuses on meeting the dual goals of achieving human and planetary health. Ultimately people don’t just eat fish, they eat a variety of foods that come from both aquatic and terrestrial food systems. And so trying to see these holistically, I think is the best approach to being able to ensure planetary sustainability, but also make sure that people get nutrients they need, especially in places vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.

Are there any examples from you or your colleagues that you think represent really promising new directions?

One of the things that my lab is working on currently is mapping the distribution of fish and the nutritional benefits from fish after it is harvested. And so what we’ve done, for example in Malawi is, actually followed fish from the lake where it’s harvested to fish markets throughout the country. And we’ve done this for two different species of fish and actually found that their distribution networks are quite different. These fisheries are serving the nutritional needs of somewhat distinct populations within the same country. And if you couple that with knowledge about the different nutrients that these different species contain, then you get these really distinctive profiles of how different fisheries are meeting different nutritional needs throughout a country. So we know generally that fish are really high in micronutrients and polyunsaturated fatty acids that are crucial for proper development and growth, immune system, lowering cardiovascular and noncommunicable disease burdens, right, but for many species of fish we don’t know what their nutrient profiles or, what the content of nutrients that contain are. And this limits our ability to make specific recommendations about the role of fish in meeting food and nutrition security, and also of meeting specific nutritional needs of particular populations.

There are a number of researchers right now who are, working on compiling information about the nutrient content of different fish species and developing some models to try to infer what the nutrient content of fish species are for which we don’t have data. And that work is proving to be really powerful in communicating the importance of fish. Some findings that have emerged from that work are this prediction that 845 million people, or 11% of the global population, might experience deficiencies in vitamin A, zinc or iron due to decline in capture marine fisheries for a variety of reasons.

Another really interesting study has translated global fish yields of different fisheries around the world into the nutrient yields that they provide. And this study is really interesting because it highlights that different species are yielding different types of nutrients. And that some fisheries yield a lot of Omega 3 fatty acids, other fisheries yield a lot of different micronutrients, and this doesn’t correspond directly to the volume of fish that’s being produced. And what this tells us is that there’s room there for us to look at these different fisheries and understand their specific contributions food and nutrition security. This study also highlighted that there are many fisheries that are producing ample nutrients, but that coastal populations adjacent to these fisheries are still experiencing, deficiencies in the nutrients that these fisheries provide. This raises some interesting questions about distribution.

Great, Abby and let me ask you one final question. What do you see as the next steps for fisheries management?

It’s a really interesting question. I think that we can ask ourselves the question of how would fisheries management or fisheries policy look different if we thought about fish as a food and try to govern fisheries to better meet food and nutrition security. One thing that may end up changing is we might focus on managing different fisheries and investing in the governance of different fisheries, right? So fisheries governance is expensive and we have to think what are the economic costs and benefits for a country to invest in the governance of fisheries. By looking at the food security benefits and highlighting those, I think that can provide another justification and basis for investing in the governance and sustainability of fisheries. Not just high value fisheries that may, for example, go to export revenue generation, but also small scale fisheries that are important for local food and nutrition security. I think also that fisheries governance that takes seriously this fish as food lens would also look at connecting this realm of fisheries production, and managing the fish stocks, and production methods, right, the fishing methods, and connecting that to the value chain and how fisheries is distributed and, thinking critically about issues of property rights, and markets, and the distribution of benefits. So that fisheries can better serve the nutritional needs of people who need them most within the limits of sustainability.

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