Sustainable Aquaculture: Herbivorous Fish – A Solution for Food Security

With the world’s population is set to increase to almost 9.6 billion by 2050 and with mounting evidence of the need for a nutrition transition, with a focus on using less resource intensive meat-based proteins, I am always surprised and a little perplexed as to why sustainable aquaculture, with a focus on herbivorous species of fish, is not higher on the priorities of governments or investors. It’s about time that changes.

Aquaculture is currently the world’s fastest growing food industry, and now accounts for over 50% of the total global seafood supply. Sustainable aquaculture growth is key to easing pressure on wild fish stocks and to addressing the protein deficit in parts of the developing world (especially Africa and SE Asia). If the local environmental impacts of aquaculture can be addressed, the industry has a vital role to play in providing healthy, nutritious forms of protein without destroying the planet. Compared to other animal proteins, fish have the best feed conversion ratio (FCR) which coverts feed to weight; for fish, it’s about 1.8kg of feed to 1 kg fish protein by weight, whereas for beef, it’s about 8:1.

There are many examples of how food security of households engaged in small-scale aquaculture is enhanced partially through the cash generated from their operations.  Aquaculture products can be very nutritious and affordable. Under certain circumstances and with the right choice of species, aquaculture can become the most efficient way of producing animal protein and make a significant contribution to the economic prosperity of local communities.

The most significant opportunities to scale up production, are in my view, through the production of lower impact more herbivorous (those lower tropic level, plant eating species) fish, such as Tilapia, Pangasius or bivalves such as molluscs or shellfish. These tend to be lower in capital intensity and inputs and thus, more accessible, compared with higher-intensity species, such as Salmon, which use higher impact fish meals and fish oils as feed.

The key question is how can governments and investors help to rapidly scale herbivorous fish production? I highlight my top 3 below:

1) Fish Feed – What and how fish are fed is the most significant factor contributing to the aquaculture industries environmental footprint. To reduce aquacultures footprint more research and investment needs to focus on sustainable feeds – feeds such as insect and algae that reduce reliance on soya (which drive deforestation). Aqua-Spark is a great example of a muti -million Euro investment fund which has focussed on sustainable feed solutions.  One of its first two investments was Calysta, a U.S.-based biotech company that pioneered a new type of fishmeal using a high protein, fermented microbe rather than relying on wild-caught fish to make feed.   The second, Chicoa Fish Farm, is a tilapia farm in Mozambique that is building a hatchery and feed mill enable growth of the local fish farming industry.

2) Smallholder Farmer Networks – The best way of addressing the protein deficit and improving food security outcomes is not necessarily through big technological or infrastructure projects. Its about supporting knowledge transfer networks and fisherfolk support networks where there are opportunities to farm, process and market fish in local communities.  WorldFish India is a great example of how practical support together with structures for peer to peer learning can improve the productivity and profit of smallholder farmers, with profit per farmer rising from $278 p.a. to $2,648 p.a. in five years

3) Access to technology – Access to the latest technology and practices for aquaculture farmers in developing countries remains a challenge due to a lack of information, training and capital. With nearly 90% of the world’s aquaculture taking place in the developing world, a key need is for smallholder farmers to access and benefit from the latest technological and scientific advances. The use of digital/mobile enabled tools that connect aquaculture farmers or can forewarn farmers of outbreaks of fish diseases, reducing the need for antibiotic use, is one such example of where technology can help to improve the efficacy, profitability and sustainability within the aquaculture sector.

Investing and prioritising sustainable herbivorous aquaculture is surely a no brainer. Done well, it will build resilience and security of food supplies in the most vulnerable parts of the world whilst helping to address hunger and the protein deficit. It about time that governments, businesses and investors prioritised actions which places herbivorous aquaculture at the heart of their food and agriculture strategies.

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