How can we address the food security and environmental concerns of aquaculture?

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During the last 30 years, the world’s seafood markets have changed profoundly. Improved logistics and distribution as well as lower transportation costs have created global markets for a number of species that earlier only had regional or local markets. As seafood is regarded as an industrial product, trade barriers have not been a major obstacle, particularly for product forms with a limited degree of processing. This has made seafood one of the most traded groups of food products. In 2010, 39 percent of seafood production was traded, and 77 percent of production was estimated to be exposed to trade competition. In addition to the increased trade in seafood, the “blue revolution” is rapidly changing the main mode of seafood production. Aquaculture has become a larger source of fish for food than wild capture, although production from wild harvest is still larger overall due to non-food uses such as reduction to fish meal. The increased importance of aquaculture is partly due to the fact that landings of wild fish reached a plateau in the late 1980s, and partly due to a massive increase in productivity, as knowledge and techniques from agriculture were employed to gain control over the production process. There are a number of forecasts of future aquaculture production, and most indicate a substantial increase. At the same time, while we have access to quite accurate data on wild and aquaculture seafood production, in general we cannot separate them in trade statistics. Aquaculture is also a new way of interacting with the environment, with the potential to cause substantial environmental damage and social conflicts as it displaces other activities directly or indirectly. It also constitutes a global environmental problem through its demand for feed. Despite its contribution to the global food system, trade in seafood in general, and thereby also aquaculture, has been linked to food security concerns, as it is perceived to move large volumes of fish of high nutritional value from poor to rich countries.

There are two distinct sets of environmental concerns related to aquaculture—global and local. The main global concern is that increased demand for feed for aquaculture production will increase fishing pressure on wild stocks and threaten the sustainability of associated capture fisheries, since marine proteins are important ingredients in the diet for cultured fish. More local concerns include discharges from farming sites, destruction of local habitat, and escapees and spreading of pathogens, which are more or less similar to what is experienced in agriculture.  There are also food safety issues related to aquaculture production. Although the literature mostly deals with seafood in general and species independently of production mode, overall, seafood consumption in general should be advocated rather than constrained.

While there are specific cases where food safety issues lead to import bans, these are mostly due to specific production practices and are handled within existing rules. Since fish products are currently treated as industrial products under the World Trade Organization, the paper discusses tariffs, subsidies, non-tariff barriers such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures, anti-dumping and countervailing measures, technical barriers to trade, and rules of origin. It then provides an overview of efforts by non-governmental organizations to promote marine conservation through private measures, which could eventually involve governments and hence WTO rules.

Aquaculture has many similarities to agriculture when it comes to environmental impacts. As a rapidly growing industry, there are unfortunately too many examples where the environmental carrying capacity is exceeded, making the industry economically and environmentally unsustainable. While the causes differ from case to case, lack of or too lax regulations and poor or non-existent management are the root causes. The dominance of developing countries in aquaculture production is most likely caused by this factor, as it seems most developed countries are willing to accept so little environmental risk or impacts that it is close to impossible for a new biology-based industry to develop in them. Successful aquaculture, however, requires infrastructure and knowledge in addition to water, explaining why its presence is limited in the poorest countries.

This article is published in collaboration with E15 Initiative. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Frank Asche is a Professor at the University of Stavanger.

Image: A school of barracuda swims off the Malaysian island of Sipadan in Celebes Sea. REUTERS/David Loh.

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