Transforming blue food systems is a win-win for people and planet

Transforming blue food systems is a win-win for people and planet
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Can blue foods help protect the planet and meet the looming crisis of how to feed a fast-growing population? The United Nations, which has made foods from the water one of the key pillars at its special summit on Food Systems this week, thinks it can. But with a third of our oceans overfished, we must act now to harness its potential for future generations.   

With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050 and hundreds of millions of people already undernourished, food from our oceans offers huge potential to alleviate hunger. This potential can only be unlocked, however, if governments work together to create sustainable and well-managed food systems. 

The Blue Food Assessment (BFA) published last week provides one of the most comprehensive overviews to date of how blue foods can play a vital role in addressing the combined challenges of climate change, sustainable development and malnutrition.  
 
One of its key papers found that fish, shellfish and algae have more nutritional benefits and sustainability gains than terrestrial animal-source foods. For example, compared to chicken, oysters and mussels have 76 times more vitamins B-12 and five times more iron. Blue foods also provide opportunities to reduce the environmental footprint of animal protein compared with land-based production.    

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However, as our ocean is already under immense pressure, and with the growth in demand for blue foods set to roughly double by 2050, sustainable management of ocean resources is crucial if the benefits of these aquatic food sources are to be reaped.  
 
The urgency of this issue is spelled out in another of the scientific papers published as part of the BFA. The study, by some of the world’s leading food systems researchers, doesn’t pull its punches. Without the help of better policy and governance, it argues, shocks to small-scale fisheries and aquaculture could threaten the food and nutrition security of millions worldwide. Those in regions currently most vulnerable to food insecurity and the impact of climate change face the highest risks.  

But this problem isn’t an unsolvable equation. We already know what works. We know, for instance, that tackling overfishing is a win-win for the planet and people. Fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully, providing more people with the nutrients they need to live healthily. In fact, it is estimated that 16 million tonnes more in catch could be generated every year if all wild-capture fisheries used sustainable practices. The MSC’s own analysis, where I serve as chief executive, suggests that this would meet the protein needs of 72 million more people around the world every year. 

Patagonian toothfishIcelandic cod and Cantabrian anchovy have all seen stocks rebound in recent years and just this month the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that four commercial tuna species were recovering as a result of governments enforcing more sustainable fishing quotas and successfully combatting illegal fishing.  

At a time when we need more success stories like this, many governments however are struggling to co-operate over fishery management measures that will ensure healthy fish stocks for future generations. Take the situation in the North East Atlantic, where some of the richest nations on the planet have consistently failed to find consensus on how to share quotas for herring, mackerel and blue whiting. As a result, catch quotas for these fisheries exceed the scientifically recommended limits needed to ensure their long-term sustainability, and these fisheries have consequently lost their certification to the MSC’s sustainability standard.   

History shows us that taking more fish from the ocean than can be replenished, leads to stock collapse and, ultimately, impacts negatively on those fishing communities that rely on the sea for their livelihoods. Yet despite the mistakes of the past, this problem remains — the Mediterranean, for instance, remains the most overfished sea in the world. Despite the good news on some tuna species, many individual tuna stocks remain at risk and regional management authorities struggle to agree on international measures to manage those stocks sustainably for the long term.  

Governments have a responsibility on behalf of the public to safeguard our oceans for current and future generations. As climate change, population growth and overfishing are converging to create a perfect storm that threatens the future health of our aquatic resources, and the billions of people that depend on them, it’s time for a revitalized global approach to the management of our oceans’ riches. The world is looking to the UN Food Systems Summit as an opportunity for decision-makers to decide on a meaningful, coordinated and cooperative change. Let’s hope they deliver.  

Rupert Howes is chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).