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Contribution of Fisheries to Food and Nutrition Security: Current Knowledge, Policy, and Research

Published: May 2018
Authors: Abigail Bennett, Pawan Patil, Kristin Kleisner, Doug Rader, John Virdin, and Xavier Basurto

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This report synthesizes current understanding of capture fisheries’ contributions to food and nutrition security and explores drivers of those contributions. Capture fisheries produce more than 90 million metric tons of fish per year, providing the world’s growing population with a crucial source of food. Due to the particular nutritional characteristics of fish, fisheries represent far more than a source of protein. A growing body of data and research focused specifically at the intersection of fisheries, nutrition, and food security can inform such efforts by improving understanding of fisheries’ production and distributional dimensions, consumption patterns, and nutritional aspects of fish in the context of healthy diets and sustainable food systems. This expanding body of knowledge can provide a basis for more directly considering fisheries in the food and nutrition security policy dialogue.

This report aims to synthesize information on the contribution of capture fisheries to food and nutrition security and on the potential for these food production systems to do more to help end hunger and malnutrition. The information here comes from peer-reviewed articles, gray literature, and key reports from international organizations, including findings and data at global, national, and subnational levels. Although knowledge about fisheries’ contributions to nutrition and food security continues to increase, particularly in the wake of agreement on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it has yet to sufficiently influence the policy realm, where explicit links between fisheries governance and food and nutrition security need to be amplified. For that reason, this report’s assessment of emerging data and research pays attention to the distinct challenges and opportunities facing capture fisheries and, to a lesser extent, aquaculture.

The Social Problem: Hunger and Malnutrition

The social problem targeted by this report is the continued prevalence of hunger and malnutrition worldwide and the global commitment to end this problem by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 2). Between 2015 and 2016, the prevalence of hunger is estimated to have increased from 10.6 percent of the global population (777 million people) to 11 percent (815 million people). Essentially 1 in 10 people on the planet suffers from hunger. More than one in five children are stunted—have low height relative to weight—often indicating undernutrition or micronutrient deficiency. The problem has many dimensions, often intersecting with geography (i.e., the “birth lottery”). For example, the highest rates of undernourishment and child stunting are in Africa, where one in five people is undernourished (one in three in Eastern Africa); the highest absolute number of undernourished people are in Asia (519.6 million). Child wasting—low weight relative to height—occurs in 9 percent of children under the age of five in Asia and in 16 percent of such children in Southern Asia. At the same time, the prevalence of children under age five who are overweight is increasing in all regions of the world.

The Role of Capture Fisheries Food Production Systems in Helping to Solve the Problem

The world’s capture fisheries are major food production systems that could play a larger role in meeting SDG2. Since 1945, the FAO has promoted the role of capture fisheries in ending hunger, but in the last seven years, the number of research publications on the topic has grown substantially. This trend reflects the fact that, unlike some staple foods such as rice and other grains, fish is unique in that it has the potential to address multiple dimensions of food and nutrition security simultaneously.

Capture (or wild-caught) fisheries and aquaculture (farmed fish production) together produced 167.2 million metric tons of fish in 2014. That amount is equivalent to 20 kilograms per capita annually and to 17 percent of animal protein consumed by the global population. In 2014, the split in production between capture fisheries and aquaculture was roughly half and half, though a greater proportion of aquaculture production was destined for human consumption (e.g., some of the products from capture fisheries provide feed for aquaculture and livestock). Within capture fisheries, nearly half of production is from smallholders, or “small-scale fisheries,” which also employ an estimated 90 percent of the world’s fishers, almost all of whom live in developing countries.

This global supply of fish from both capture fisheries and aquaculture provides nearly one-fifth of the average per capita animal protein intake for more than 3.1 billion people. Given that subsistence fishing (fishing for own consumption) and informal trade is often underreported in official statistics, this number may underestimate the contribution of fisheries. This contribution is much higher in a number of regions, countries, and communities. For example, the populations of some countries (Maldives, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Ghana) obtain more than half of their animal protein from fish. In countries such as Iceland, Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and some small island developing states (SIDS) where fish is the most available animal protein source, fish provide almost four times the global average of animal protein in terms of dietary energy. In aggregate, developing countries consume an annual per capita average of 18.8 kilograms of fish, and low-income, food-deficit countries consume 7.6 kilograms of fish, falling below the global average. Yet these countries tend to rely on fish for a greater portion of their animal protein than the global average, even when total consumption levels are lower. Fish is typically more affordable than other animal-source foods (ASFs), and it plays an especially important dietary role in countries in which access to animal protein is low and staple foods such as rice, wheat, corn, roots, and tubers predominate.

The most important contribution of fish are multiple micronutrients essential to addressing a variety of health issues worldwide. Fish contain vitamin A, D, and B and calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, and iodine. Precise nutrient profiles vary across fish species, processing and preparation techniques, and habitat. Micronutrients in fish can lead to a variety of health benefits, including lowered risk of cardiovascular disease; positive maternal health and pregnancy outcomes and increased early childhood physical and cognitive development; improved immune system function; and alleviated health issues associated with micronutrient deficiencies such as anemia, rickets, childhood blindness, and stunting. Vitamin D deficiency alone is a prevalent health issue worldwide. It can lead to rickets in children, affect bone health in adults, and is associated with increased risk of common cancers, autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease as well as communicable diseases. For pregnant women, insufficient levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, preterm birth, and low birth weight. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and can also contribute to weakened immune system and anemia, given that it supports the body’s use of iron. Vitamin B is also important in combination with iron and folate to prevent anemia and a number of neurologic and cognitive problems. Similarly, the minerals available in fish can help address a number of health issues, for example, iron deficiency, which leads to anemia (estimated to affect about 800 million women and children worldwide), and zinc deficiency, which correlates with the prevalence of child stunting.

The global fish supply also provides crucial fatty acids, including omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids essential for cardiovascular and brain health. The consumption of fish or fish oil has been shown to be associated with a number of benefits to coronary health, for example, lowered risk of death and sudden death from coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, atrial fibrillation, and congestive heart failure. Worldwide, 1.4 million deaths are attributable to diets low in seafood-source omega-3 fatty acids. Fish consumption correlates with a 36 percent reduction in heart disease and heart attacks and a 12 percent reduction in mortality from all causes.

Fish consumption is particularly important to women, infants, and children who have higher demand for micronutrients and protein. In low-income countries, malnutrition accounts for 45 percent of mortality in children under age five and half of years lived with a disability for children age four and younger. In Bangladesh, the risk of child mortality is significantly lower for children born during peak fishing seasons to mothers who have a preference for fish. One study found that a number of inland fish are capable of providing at least 25 percent of recommended nutrient intake across multiple micronutrients for infants and pregnant or lactating women in Bangladesh. In Cambodia, nutrient-rich fish, especially wild-caught fish, are an essential part of the diets of infants and children, even those under 12 months of age. A study in Tanzania found that the breastmilk of women who consumed high levels of freshwater fish had levels of DHA (an important omega-3 fatty acid) even higher than those recommended for baby formulas. When consumed by mothers, the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA from fish have been linked with improved infant and child cognitive development, reduced preterm delivery, and decreased risk of asthma, food allergy, and eczema in children. However, in many countries, the low amount and frequency of fish consumption among young children and late introduction of fish in complementary feeding of infants likely limits health benefits.

Consumption of fish does carry some risk of exposure to toxic substances, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, methylmercury, and, increasingly, microplastics. This risk varies dramatically by type of fish consumed as well as by environment. Primary concerns are with levels of methylmercury, which can cause neurodevelopmental problems in children and which may contribute to cardiovascular disease in adults, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins that may lead to cancer risks. These risks are an important consideration for certain groups such as high consumers of fish, the elderly, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. The general agreement of experts, however, is that the benefits of consuming fish outweigh the risks, even at high consumption levels for the general population and moderate consumption levels of most species for pregnant and lactating women.

Public Policies Needed for Fisheries to Meet SDG2

Although capture fisheries and aquaculture are both important food production systems to help end hunger and malnutrition, capture fisheries are distinct in that a number of processes, if not addressed, stand to undermine their food and nutrition contributions. In particular, population growth, overfishing, climate change, and trade are likely to alter the volume and distribution of the supply from capture fisheries, potentially to the detriment of sufficient and equitable global food provisioning. The supply of fish from capture fisheries grew exponentially during the twentieth century until peaking in the 1990s, and it has essentially stagnated since that time as concerns of overfishing have grown (currently FAO characterizes 31 percent of assessed fish stocks as overexploited). A recent analysis predicts that 10 percent of the world will experience deficiencies in essential micronutrients and fatty acids as a result of declining capture fisheries and that these implications will be concentrated in low-latitude developing countries.

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. Estimates suggest that the world’s marine capture fisheries could sustainably contribute an additional 16 million metric tons annually with governance reforms to address overfishing. Policies to enact these reforms will need to grapple with the more general challenges associated with governing common pool resources. Monitoring and enforcing rules limiting who can harvest these resources and how much they can harvest are costly and difficult. Governance reforms can be particularly challenging when fish resources are highly mobile and in contexts in which the number of fishing vessels is high and in which fishing activities are highly dispersed. Inland fisheries face unique governance challenges related to competition over alternative freshwater uses. Any reforms will need to address the tradeoffs and synergies related to reducing fishing effort (or allocating freshwater resources) while maintaining a nutritious food supply and ensuring traditional access for small-scale fishers. Accordingly, policy interventions and responses will need to take into account distributional consequences as well as geographically differentiated needs and vulnerabilities to short-term fluctuations in the supply of fish.

The potential health and nutrition payoff for recovering and sustaining these food production systems has often been missing in the global food policy dialogue. For example, SDG2 targets spell out concrete actions that are relevant almost exclusively to terrestrial agricultural food systems. Similarly, much of the current thinking about nutrition-sensitive food systems—that is, about the design of interventions specifically to support diverse diets and improve nutrition—generally overlooks the role of sustainable fisheries.

A Research Agenda for Increasing the Contributions of Capture Fisheries to Ending Hunger and Malnutrition: The Food-Environment Nexus in the Water

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. Building a comprehensive understanding of the role that capture fisheries play in nutrition and food security entails integrating different data sources to address a number of key questions. Data on the production and distribution of fish provides a baseline for understanding the extent to which fisheries can contribute to food and nutritional needs in different places. Data on fish consumption patterns, typically collected at the household level, lend further insight into how fish supply translates into food provision. Consumption data can also serve to triangulate and add granularity to production and trade data. Knowledge about the nutrient profiles of different fish and the ways that processing, preservation, and preparation techniques affect nutritional characteristics can augment understanding of potential nutritional contributions associated with different fish consumption patterns. Dietary guidelines and recommended nutritional intakes for different populations then provide a basis for understanding the significance of nutrition from fish consumption with respect to individual nutritional requirements. Finally, these data can be situated within the broader context of global food and nutrition security, informing a more comprehensive understanding of where fish currently support good nutrition or could contribute more to alleviating particular forms of malnutrition. Although some of these data are established or emerging, they face substantial challenges related to reliability and comparability. Furthermore, these sources of information have only begun to be integrated to improve understanding of the current and future contributions of fisheries to food and nutrition security.

Fisheries policy that attends explicitly to food and nutrition security dimensions will depend on research that enhances understanding of both the magnitude of fisheries’ contributions as well as the factors that affect the distribution, access, and use of fisheries resources. A critical need, given evidence that many capture fisheries are overexploited, is understanding of the implications of reducing fishing effort on food and nutrition security. Accurately predicting and evaluating the effects of any policy on that security is challenging from a methodological standpoint. However, the more that research explicitly attends to these effects, the better it stands to inform integrated, coherent, and equitable policy.

Key research topics 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. Understanding the contributions that capture fisheries make to food and nutrition security requires more rigorous and systematic research on multiple drivers of fish supply distribution (for example, trade and climate change), particularly because the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition may be focused as much on distribution as on sustainably increasing food supply. Furthermore, the geographic scope of research would need to be expanded, because most of the research to date has taken place in a relatively small number of countries or regions, notably the United States, Pacific Island countries and territories, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. Although the body of research explicitly aimed at understanding linkages between capture fisheries and nutrition and food security is growing, it is nonetheless incipient. More robust evidence is needed to evaluate the multiple pathways (for example, direct consumption, income, empowerment of women, macroeconomic growth) through which fisheries contribute to nutrition and food security.

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