Scientists Call for Fisheries to Focus on Nutrition

[An edited version of this story first appeared on SciDev.Net, 30 May 2016]

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that fish consumption per person globally has more than doubled over the past five decades.

But some scientists say we should now focus more on the nutritional quality of fisheries. Fisheries management that are nutrition-sensitive would measure and improve nutritional outcomes instead of only production and trade values, reports the recent paper in the journal Food Policy.

By adopting a nutrition-sensitive approach, the authors of the paper argue that fisheries present many untapped opportunities to meet the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations to provide accessible and nutritious foods for all. Fisheries refer to harvesting of aquatic animals from wild populations and aquaculture.

Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, lead author of the study, says that past policies targeted hunger and have successfully increased food production.

“But now in areas where people have more than enough staple food, they remain malnourished,” says Thilsted who is a senior nutrition advisor with the international research organization, WorldFish.

“We want to develop food production systems, in this case fisheries, that improve nutrition and health of the populations.”

The authors suggest three target areas for fisheries to work towards nutrition-sensitive: Improve quality and quantity of fish supply, empower women, and promote equitable markets.

Fisheries need to better diversify their products to provide greater diversity of foods, and hence nutrition. Capture fisheries must conserve ecosystems for sustainable and diverse harvest from the wild.

On the other hand, aquaculture—a fast growing sector expected to meet 63% of global fish demand by 2030—produces mainly large species which Thilsted and her colleagues had reported to be less nutritious than the small fish from capture fisheries.

“If we only focus on tilapia,” says Thilsted “then we limit what people can cook and eat, and the nutritional benefits they can get from diverse fish species.” Tilapia fish is a major aquaculture commodity; China and Southeast Asia are the largest producers.

The study suggests that aquaculture produce a mix of nutritious small fish species and large species for the market to optimize resource use and product diversity.

Weimin Miao, aquaculture officer at the FAO Regional Office in Bangkok, agrees that more needs to be done to boost the contribution of fisheries to the health and nutrition of the people.

However, Miao cautions against overemphasizing nutritional outcomes as specific goals for fisheries development when current production lags behind demand.

Exaggerating the difference of some “micronutrients between different fish,” says Miao “might lead us to overlook the overall importance of fish as an important source of healthier animal food.”

“We should prioritize developing sustainable, efficient aquaculture products that are more affordable, especially for the locals,” says Miao. He thinks it is more pertinent to increase supply of affordable fish, particularly for local low-income groups, instead of setting nutritional outcomes as goals “which are rather difficult to quantify and measure.”

Authorities keen to adopt a nutrient-sensitive approach to managing fisheries on the national level can start by comparing available data of fisheries production and consumption. Thilsted says that doing so across segments of the populations could show the role fisheries play in contributing to nutritional needs, especially of the poor.

“If one evaluates other aspects of development, such as nutrition and health of children,” says Thilsted “then one could see that in the long term, these [production-focused] policies in fisheries are not optimal for national development.”

 

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