Food and Water

Nearly 15% of the seafood we produce each year is wasted. Here’s what needs to happen

The biggest sources of food loss and waste (FLW) come from processing on land and discards from wild-capture fishing.

The biggest sources of food loss and waste (FLW) come from processing on land and discards from wild-capture fishing. Image: Unsplash/Jas Min

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Food Security

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • A new World Economic Forum report finds that almost 15% of fish, seafood and other aquatic food goes to waste.
  • Aquatic food provides an important source of nutrition for many people, and we are eating increasing volumes of it.
  • Improvements in processing and storage, along with new technologies, are helping reduce the amount of food lost and wasted.

In a world where people are going hungry, a new report from the World Economic Forum finds a shocking 15% of fish and seafood in our food chain goes to waste.

Aquatic foods are critical to global nutrition and food security, and their consumption is increasing each year. But, increasing amounts of it also end up uneaten. The Investigating Global Aquatic Food Loss and Waste whitepaper finds that 23.8 million tonnes of edible aquatic food was lost or wasted in 2021.

The biggest sources of food loss and waste (FLW) come from processing on land and discards from wild-capture fishing (as opposed to fish farms), with each accounting for over a third of the total figure.

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Making sure that more aquatic food we capture ends up in our mouths, rather than the bin, is crucial to reducing waste and enhancing long-term food security. Although the size of the problem is significant, technology, innovation and collaboration are increasingly providing us with new strategies to be less wasteful, says the report.

FLW is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as food that goes to landfills emits methane as it deteriorates—which has a far greater warming potential than carbon dioxide.

Global production of protein in 2019
In 2019 aquatic food consumption was more than double that of beef. Image: World Economic Forum

A growing source of nutrition

As the chart above shows, more aquatic foods are consumed globally than chicken, pork, beef or sheep. Globally, over 3 billion people rely on them for a fifth or more of their animal protein.

Aquatic foods also contain vitamins and other nutrients that are not readily available from different food sources. These foods are also particularly important in lower to middle-income countries, where they can be the primary and sometimes only source of protein.

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Given these benefits, aquatic foods have become one of the highest-valued and most traded food commodities globally, and consumption growth has outpaced population growth. Global consumption is five times greater than it was six decades ago, and by 2030, the report expects the world to be consuming 181 million tonnes of aquatic foods annually.

Estimation of global edible aquatic FLW along the value chain.
The biggest volume of waste comes from processing on land and at sea. Image: World Economic Forum

Where food loss and waste occur

A significant amount of food is lost during sea fishing, where catches not deemed valuable enough are thrown back overboard. Many fish are returned to the sea dead or die shortly after through trauma or increased susceptibility to predation.

For those fish which are kept, processing on board fishing vessels is the next biggest source of loss in the value chain. Gutting, de-heading, skinning and trimming at this stage reduces the need for processing once the fish reaches land and thereby extends its shelf life, but creates further waste.

Once on land, the catch is further processed. The losses here depend on the market's demands—higher income nations tend to prefer easy-to-prepare and consume products like fillets or ready-to-eat products made from fish like tuna, cod, haddock, salmon, and prawns. In contrast, lower-income countries tend to eat more fresh whole fish.

Once catches enter the retail market, losses occur when food is contaminated, spoiled or exceeds its “sell-by” date.

Food bought by hotels and restaurants can be lost through poor handling and storage, and human error when they are prepared and cooked. There is also food lost through poor stock rotation and unused surplus.

Catch consumed at home is often wasted through poor storage, but there are also cultural and geographical differences in consumption which affect waste levels. Eating whole fish, as is more customary in lower-income countries, is less wasteful than semi or fully-prepared products.

Percentage of global edible aquatic foods production that is lost or wasted
Almost 15% of all aquatic food goes to waste. Image: World Economic Forum

Aquaculture as an alternative source

Aquaculture – fish farming – provides an alternative to wild capture. It is not without losses though, and innovations like sensor technology and disease detection can help minimize deaths. Similarly, alternatives to fishmeal and training on handling techniques are helping to improve aquaculture production and reduce losses.

Schematic showing the difference between food loss and food waste along a typical (simplified) aquatic food value chain
Higher-income countries usually lose less product in processing and retail than lower-income countries, but waste more in household consumption. Image: World Economic Forum

Where does the most food loss and waste occur?

There is a lot of variation in the levels of FLW between regions, the report shows. Asia has the highest level of aquatic food loss, at 37% of all edible stock. Europe is close behind, losing just under a third. This compares to Oceania at the other end of the scale, where less than 2% of edible aquatic food is lost.

The percentage of edible aquatic food loss globally by continent and value chain node
Asia and Europe are the continents which have the highest FLW. Image: World Economic Forum

How can we reduce aquatic food loss and waste?

Given the multiple points along the value chain at which loss and waste occur, we can also make multiple improvements, says the report.

One of the most obvious is finding new uses for industry by-products. For example, edible and non-edible parts are already being used for pet food, aquacultural and agricultural feeds, fertilizers, and biofuels. Promising applications are also being explored in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and nutraceuticals.

Infrastructure improvements, helping maintain highly perishable goods at consistent cold temperatures, will also have a significant impact. This can include changes to the freezing process, particularly in the early stages of the value chain.

Emerging technologies are making a difference, too, says the report. AI, blockchain and other digital technologies are helping improve tracking and traceability, as well as better predict market demands to create smoother, more efficient supply chains.

As new and better solutions to reducing FLW come to the fore, collaboration between industry associations, academia and public-private partnerships will help spread and grow best practices.

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