Davos Agenda

How sustainable aquaculture can help meet the growing demand for blue food

Fish farm

As demand for blue food increases, so does the need for a sustainable and fair food system. Image: Unsplash.

Jim Leape
Core Team, Blue Food Assessment; Member of Friends of Ocean Action; Co-Director, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions
Hugh Welsh
General Counsel, Secretary & President, DSM North America
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Davos Agenda

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  • Demand for blue food is expected to roughly double by 2050, which will have environmental and social implications.
  • The sustainability of blue food consumption will depend on which types of fish are eaten, and where and how they are produced.
  • We examine the challenges ahead and highlight innovative solutions for sustainable aquaculture growth.

The world will increasingly rely on aquaculture to meet a growing demand for blue food, which is likely to double by 2050. Like all food systems, aquaculture presents both opportunities and challenges, particularly around health, sustainability and equity. We need to embrace a diversity of blue foods and blue food actors, foster innovation and catalyze cross-sector collaboration in order to achieve truly sustainable aquaculture.

The future is blue. By 2050, the world is likely to eat twice as much blue food – fish, shellfish and algae that are caught or cultivated in fresh or saltwater – than in 2015, according to the recent Blue Food Assessment. As our demand for blue food increases, so do calls for food system transformation to meet this growing need in a way that is both sustainable and just.

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With wild stocks fished near capacity, aquaculture will contribute most of the additional fish produced and consumed in the future. Aquaculture is not a silver bullet, however. It presents resource and environmental trade-offs from potential habitat destruction, excess nutrients and pathogens, the use of antibiotics, and a reliance on feed produced from wild-caught fish and agricultural crops. Research indicates progress in recent years and a potential for innovation – between 1997 and 2017, for example, the amount of wild fish used to produce a kilogram of farmed fish declined by 85%. If we want to address these environmental risks and meet rising demand, now is the time.

How can we achieve sustainable aquaculture?

Blue food producers, especially in aquaculture, have already made strides toward environmental sustainability, highlighting the potential for industry leaders to address the challenges of increased production while improving practices and systems. We need to embrace a diversity of blue foods and blue food actors, foster innovation and catalyze cross-sector collaboration to spark a food system transformation by 2050 that is healthy, equitable and sustainable.

First, there are more than 2,500 species or species groups of blue food wild-caught or cultivated for food, providing a rich and diverse array of protein and nutrients to support nutrition, sustainability and equitable livelihoods. The future of blue food will depend critically on which types of aquatic foods are eaten, and where and how they are produced. Shifting from species with a large environmental impact to lower-impact species can create big wins for nutrition, food security and the environment. The people behind the production processes matter, too. Small-scale fisheries and aquaculture produce, process and distribute most of the blue food destined for human consumption. They also provide 90% of the jobs, supporting 800 million livelihoods in the blue food sector.

Nutrient diversity of aquatic animal-source foods in relation to terrestrial animal-source foods. Aquatic (blue) and terrestrial (green) food richness assessed as a ratio of concentrations of each nutrient per 100 grams to the daily recommended nutrient intake. Each shaded box represents the median value of each nutrient in muscle tissue across all species within each taxonomic group. Source: Golden et al. 2021.
Nutrient diversity of aquatic animal-source foods in relation to terrestrial animal-source foods. Aquatic (blue) and terrestrial (green) food richness assessed as a ratio of concentrations of each nutrient per 100 grams to the daily recommended nutrient intake. Each shaded box represents the median value of each nutrient in muscle tissue across all species within each taxonomic group. Source: Golden et al. 2021.

Take mola, for example. Mola is a small herbivorous fish species native to Bangladesh that’s raised by small-scale producers in rice fields or with other fish in aquaculture. Mola comprises a very small proportion of daily diets in Bangladesh. Yet despite its low consumption, it is very nutrient-rich, providing 98% of all vitamin A, 56% of all iron and 35% of all zinc consumed in Bangladesh.

Mola is just one example of the vast diversity of blue food that can offer an affordable, sustainable source of nutrition while supporting local livelihoods. As global food systems expand to consider a wider range of species, small-scale producers must have a seat at the sustainable aquaculture table.

What are the latest innovations?

Production and processing practices, like in aquaculture feeds, can help us address the challenges that lie ahead. Until now, wild-caught fish have been the sole source of omega-3 fatty acids required for the production of aquaculture feed. Veramaris, a joint venture of DSM and Evonik, fills that gap with natural microalgae. Just one processing plant in Nebraska produces enough EPA/DHA omega-3 to replace 1.2 million metric tons of wild-caught fish – the equivalent of annual catch from the Mediterranean Sea. Like Veramaris, we need innovators to think outside the box to develop aquaculture production practices and create demand for blue food species that have not been widely marketed but can offer sustainable, nutritious and appealing options for a range of consumers.

How can cross-sector collaboration advance aquaculture?

Cross-sector collaboration can help position blue food as an integral part of the food system. By doing so, we can meet multiple goals: food security, climate, energy, health.

In the North Sea, early trials raising mussels on offshore wind turbines are testing the co-benefits of shared infrastructure for food and energy production. Unfed aquaculture of bivalves produces negligible emissions and can even improve water quality. These mussels filter local waters and provide habitat structure, shoreline stabilization and livelihoods for coastal communities. Bivalves also contribute key nutritional benefits and have the potential to address the burdens of micronutrient deficiencies and malnutrition in its many forms.

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Ultimately, we must capitalize on these opportunities to achieve aquaculture policies and practices that can truly turn the tide. Yet, blue food is often ignored in national policy and business strategy conversations.

How can we bring about change?

One promising new initiative, the Friends of Ocean Action’s Blue Food Partnership, catalyzes science-based actions towards healthy and sustainable blue food value chains. Supported by the UK Government’s Blue Planet Fund, its Sustainable Aquaculture 2030 Working Group presents an opportunity to evaluate trade-offs and implement solutions for sustainable aquaculture growth.

These types of partnerships – across sectors and geographies – can provide a platform for developing practical aquaculture solutions, embracing diversity, innovation and cross-sector collaboration. As we look to the year ahead, it will be critical to bring such solutions to broader international fora, like the Our Ocean Conference and the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting.

A sustainable aquaculture future that meets the growing demand for blue food is within reach. To achieve this vision by 2050, however, we must work together to chart a course.

The UpLink Ocean Blue Food Challenge Cohort are a group of 11 innovators tackling a range of challenges in achieving sustainable, equitable, affordable and nutritious food from the ocean and aquatic sources.

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Davos AgendaFood SecurityOceanAgriculture, Food and Beverage
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