Food and Water

Aquaculture could feed the world and protect the planet - if we get it right

A netted pond, which can hold up to 40,000 fish, is seen floating on Hideaway Bay at a Tasmanian salmon farm

With arable land in limited supply, is aquaculture - the practice of growing food in water - a viable solution? Image: REUTERS/David Gray

Robert Jones
Global Lead for Aquaculture, The Nature Conservancy
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What if we had the chance to reinvent the world’s food system and make local, more sustainable food the norm rather than the exception?

It might seem like a crazy idea, but with 9 billion people expected on our planet in by 2050, it’s a necessity.

Experts agree that world food production will need to increase by 2050, but we can’t exponentially increase the amount of land or freshwater that would be required to meet that demand. With arable land in limited supply, some estimates indicate we only have 60 years of food production left in our soils if we continue with current agricultural practices.

One food production sector that is growing rapidly is aquaculture—the practice of growing food in the water. Nearly every coastal country has significant potential to farm its oceans, and the global sector is poised to grow.

We’re now at a critical inflection point at which we can alter the trajectory of aquaculture to avoid the mistakes of our land-based agriculture systems and capitalize on the unique physiological characteristics of fish, shellfish, and seaweed.

Food production must get smarter. We must use resources like land and freshwater more efficiently, emit less carbon and limit overall the impact on the environment. The growth we’re going to see in the aquaculture sector over the next several decades is something we can’t ignore. We must act now to get aquaculture right.

Aquaculture can use resources and space efficiently

Aquaculture is inherently a resource-efficient means of producing food. Marine aquaculture requires no land, and minimal fresh water. Since fish are grown in the water, where the effects of gravity are lessened, they can devote more energy towards growth and need less food per unit of production than animals on land. And farming in the ocean allows for three-dimensional farming, allowing much more animal protein to be produced in the same areal footprint.

Our ocean is largely undeveloped and traditionally not subject to the same extent of governance as land. But now, many governments are undertaking robust marine spatial planning, which can allow for better planning of aquaculture growth. Sustainable commercial use zones can direct aquaculture away from critical habitats like mangroves, corals and seagrasses, and towards areas that have the right bio-economic conditions for growing seafood - reducing many of aquaculture’s negative impacts in the process. Aquaculture can even be integrated with other emerging ocean uses like offshore sustainable energy production, including wind turbines. At the same time, critical environmental assets can be protected from commercial development.

Aquaculture in harmony with the environment

Imagine food production that contributes to ecosystem health instead of ecosystem decline. Consider a low-footprint, vertical farm that uses the entire water column to simultaneously farm shellfish and seaweed. Located near the mouth of an estuary, the farm’s bivalves filter impurities while seaweeds soak up excess nitrogen from coastal pollution like land-based runoff. The farm’s design is such that it provides a nursery ground for local fish species and crustaceans to grow to adults, making up part of the lost ecological function once provided by wild shellfish reefs. Increased use of ecological principles can help improve the design and location of marine fish farms as well.

The Nature Conservancy, alongside many partners, is conducting a number of pilot projects around the world to determine how, where, and when aquaculture can actually help improve the environment by improving water quality, habitat function, and mitigating localised ocean acidification. If we can figure out the right conditions, we can unlock a powerful market-based solution to coastal restoration, while creating food and jobs.

Have you read?
Aquaculture can shorten supply chains and grow food locally.

On average in the United States, food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches the consumer. Many major countries, from the European Union to the United States and Japan, import most of the seafood they consume at home, making seafood one of the most highly traded commodities on the planet. If we could grow more seafood locally, that would shorten the seafood supply chain, reduce seafood’s carbon footprint, stimulate local economies and provide local jobs.

With cities growing exponentially across the world, more local food production is becoming a must, but most of the available land for food production in their vicinity has been fully utilized. Most major cities are coastal, and within short distances there is significant aquaculture potential to farm the ocean safely and sustainably.

There are still many barriers to making this happen. We need smart policies for aquaculture that enable growth while protecting our environment. Working with businesses, coastal communities, and governments can ensure the future of aquaculture will live up to its potential and exist in harmony with our oceans and coasts.

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Food and WaterNature and BiodiversityYouth Perspectives
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