Fish-farming ends hunger, empowers women
© Getty Images

Efforts to eradicate hunger and improve nutrition, though well intentioned, too often focus on emergency relief rather than on the creation of stable, scalable, long-term solutions that do more than ease suffering until the next food crisis arrives.

Fortunately, one of the best solutions is one of the most cost-effective but also one that does not get the attention and funding that its success proves it deserves: aquaculture also known as fish-farming.

Aquaculture does not necessarily require significant capital and construction of massive facilities in the same way that setting up a crop or livestock infrastructure requires. Instead, successful, hunger-ending aquaculture programs can begin in something as humble as a roadside ditch.

ADVERTISEMENT

Beyond ending hunger, aquaculture is a natural breeding ground for entrepreneurship and can significantly boost national exports.
One of the best examples of the success of aquaculture has come in Bangladesh, which has used fish farming to cut chronic hunger by more than half since 2000, according to the United Nations. Bangladesh has also reduced the number of underweight children by a quarter.

Much of this work was funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. Such support continues as part of the roughly $200 million-a-year in U.S. aid to Bangladesh.

Just four decades ago, Bangladesh was a newly formed, poor and hungry nation. Floods and famine destroyed what few resources it had. Some 1.5 million people died of famine and illnesses of various kinds. Those terrible times forced Bangladesh to take action to increase its food security and self-sufficiency.

Within the first decade of its independence, Bangladesh began developing cutting-edge aquaculture practices. The country was too poor to build new, large-scale fish farms so it identified more than 1 million abandoned ponds, roadside canals, ditches and seasonally flooded pools as potential sources of fish production. Bangladesh, it turned out, was full of such small bodies of water – some as small as a backyard swimming pool – that had the potential to become mini-fish-factories.

Government officials worked with local residents to repurpose and reclaim these small bodies of water and make them suitable for raising carp, tilapia and catfish. Bangladesh now has more than 500,000 previously unused seasonal ponds teeming with fish. These farms helped boost Bangladesh’s fish yields eight-fold in just the first year of the government’s aquaculture program. Fish production continued to grow rapidly during the 1990s. Now, aquaculture accounts for 39 percent of the nation’s fish haul, according to a study by the World Fish Center, and fish account for 60 percent of Bangladeshi’s animal-sourced diet.

Bangladesh’s aquaculture success has proved the adage about the wisdom of teaching a man to fish. But it has also provided a twist on that phrase: Bangladesh has taught women to fish.

As in many traditional cultures, in Bangladesh only males worked outside the home. But one source of income was often not enough to prevent poverty, so female employment has been essential to bringing in extra food and money. Enter the opportunity of aquaculture.
Even though women in Bangladesh are still tied to duties involving the home, they are able to carry them out while fish farming, thanks to Bangladesh’s system of small-pond aquaculture – fish farms right next door to homes. Many Bangladeshi women saw the opportunity and became entrepreneurs, running their own fish-farming businesses that boosted the economic stability of their households. In Bangladesh today, more than 60 percent of fish farmers are women. Female participation in the workforce has increased incomes in rural households, bolstered nutrition and enhanced the status of women within the family and society.

In some families, women are now earning more than their husbands – and also eating better. Because of cultural practice, women in rural Bangladesh typically eat last and whatever is left over, after their husbands and children. This left them with a calorie intake of 30 percent less than their husbands. But now that women are successful fish-farmers, their status in society and within their families has risen. Now, women often eat with the rest of their families.

The aquaculture success story in Bangladesh can be repeated in other developing areas around the globe. But it needs help.  The amount of farm-reared fish must increase from 66 million tons annually to 93 million tons by 2030 to maintain current levels of per capita global fish consumption, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says. Unfortunately, governments have yet to realize the importance of aquaculture for nutrition and job creation. Despite such quantifiable successes as can be found in Bangladesh, too many developing nation’s budgets allocate much larger amounts to crop and livestock production than to fishing.

Unlike large-scale single-crop farming -- which can have long-term adverse impacts on soil quality and encourage the overuse of pesticides -- and sprawling livestock operations -- which can cause environmental damage with waste runoff -- aquaculture has a light environmental footprint and fits naturally into the biosphere.

Other developing nations should take Bangladesh’s lead and emphasize aquaculture farms because they provide a sustainable, growing source of nutrition and income.

Gupta, who won the World Food Prize in 2005 for developing low-cost fish-farming techniques, is co-recipient of this year’s Sunhak Peace Prize.