What to do with all the food from our oceans?

 Man standing behind stall selling various fish.

Photo: N. Tadyanehondo/Unsplash

“Blue foods” have so much to offer. With life and livelihoods being the theme of World Ocean Day 2021, centre researcher Malin Jonell reflects on the role of seafood in food systems

Story highlights

  • With life and livelihoods being the theme of World Ocean Day 2021, Jonell reflects on the role of seafood in food systems
  • “Blue foods” have so much to offer here but they are often missing or underrepresented in the high-level discussions
  • Seaspiracy documentary may be doing more harm than good

The ocean is an important lifesource, supporting humanity and every other organism on Earth. But despite this, its role in the transformation to a more diverse and resilient, healthy, sustainable and just food system is often overlooked.

“Blue foods” have so much to offer here but they are often missing or underrepresented in the high-level discussions making the key decisions about the future of food,” explains Malin Jonell, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

With life and livelihoods being the theme of World Ocean Day 2021, Jonell reflects on the role of seafood in food systems.

Many benefits

Blue foods include fish, invertebrates and algae that have been captured or cultivated in freshwater and marine ecosystems – and are produced in a wide variety of systems, involve diverse actors and support many cultures and diets.

In general, they are rich in micronutrients, essential fatty acids, and animal protein that can help prevent malnutrition, stunting and cognitive deficits, and non-communicable diseases.

“They also contribute to the livelihoods of 800 million people,” says Jonell.

Small-scale actors are particularly important in this regard, accounting for around 90 percent of the livelihoods in the aquaculture and fishery sector and two-thirds of all the blue food consumed directly by humans.

This isn’t all. Many blue food systems have lower environmental footprints in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases, land use and release of nutrients compared to other animal-source proteins.

“Some production systems can even improve water quality and create incentives for maintaining aquatic ecosystem health,” she explains.

A unique opportunity

The blue food sector is showing rapid growth, with aquaculture being one of the fastest growing food production sectors in the world.

However, environmental impacts of fishing and farming remain a key challenge.

“The global community now faces a unique window of opportunity to steer this expansion toward sustainability,” says Jonell.

And this is where the Blue Food Assessment comes in.

Led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stanford University, the Blue Foods Assessment (BFA) will be a comprehensive examination of the role of aquatic foods in building healthy, sustainable, and equitable food systems.

A partnership with EAT will help take the findings directly into the UN Food Systems Summit in the fall 2021, and into food dialogues and decision-making more broadly.

The assessment will illuminate what’s at stake, the challenges we face, what’s possible, and what works.

Malin Jonell. Photo: J. Gantelius

Seaspiracy doing more harm than good

However, the recently-out Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy” has poured doubt on the idea of sustainable aquatic food.

What does Jonell think about this?

“It is of course welcome that media and filmmakers pick up environmental and social concerns related to fisheries and aquaculture,” she reflects.

She acknowledges that many of the problems brought up, such as issues around bycatch, slavery and human rights abuse and devastating impacts of some industrial fishing fleets, are true challenges that deserve much more attention.

“But unfortunately, the documentary is probably doing more harm than good”.

First Jonell highlights how the documentary mainly confronts the ocean conservation community.

“It focuses on the NGOs that are trying to make the conditions in the ocean better, rather than the industrial blue food companies that are the main source of the problem”.

Secondly, she says, some claims are incorrect. The oceans will not be “empty” by 2048.

“This has been contested by the study’s main author, and most overfished fish stocks are able to recover if managed well”.

Third, Jonell takes issue with the message that substantially halting blue food consumption and turning to veganism will be key for preserving life in the ocean.

“Veganism and vegetarianism may well be an important strategy to reduce environmental impacts from food production in the well-nourished part of the world,” she explains.

“But blue foods will continue to be an important source of key nutrients for the 3.2 billion people in poorer coastal regions relying on blue foods for their daily intake of protein”.

Moreover, in countries where red meat consumption is high, she says, a shift from red meat to blue food would likely have positive effects on both the environment and on public health.

The solution space

So how do we move forward?

World Ocean Day 2021 also marks the beginning of the ambitious Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

With this renewed focus on the ocean, the UN hopes to “gather ocean stakeholders worldwide behind a common framework that will ensure ocean science can fully support countries in creating improved conditions for sustainable development of the ocean”.

Jonell agrees: “To transform blue food systems to environmental and social sustainability – and that’s needed for sure – we need much more collaboration between people and organizations.”

She urges for changes in policies and rules. “And the private sector must step up and take the lead in steering towards truly sustainable blue food practices”.

Published: 2021-06-10

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