Safari Fang and Nikhil Srinivasapura Venkateshmurthy Talk Oceans and Food

By Safari Fang and Nikhil Srinivasapura Venkateshmurthy, Speaker Ambassadors at the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting

The existing conversations of global food systems are supply — and terrestrial — orientated, focusing on increasing production of staple crops and transition towards consumption of animal products, but the oceans have been largely ignored. Oceans provide critical nutrition and livelihoods, and many market, dietary, and ecosystem connections exist between agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, and livestock production. The goal of a panel recently held at Stanford University as part of the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting was to bring the oceans more centrally into the discussion of global food systems. This session was moderated by Stanford Professor Rosamond Naylor and included the panelists Shakuntala Thilsted, Jorge Torre, Ling Cao, and Samuel Myers.

Panelists, from the left: Rosamond Naylor, Shakuntala Thilsted, Jorge Torre, Ling Cao, and Samuel Myers

Four important questions were discussed at the panel:

  1. How do we produce fish sustainably?
  2. Is fish nutritious and healthy for human consumption?
  3. How can fish contribute to solving the hidden hunger problem (vitamin and mineral deficiencies)?
  4. How do we keep people at the center of the food system?

Shakuntala Thilsted, Research Program Leader for Value Chains and Nutrition at WorldFish, talked about the nutritional value of aquatic foods. Aquatic foods, compared to terrestrial crops, provide high bioavailability micronutrients. Fish is rich in micronutrients, especially vitamin B12, which is required for brain development and cognition. Food waste is less with fish because almost all parts of fish are edible. Aquatic foods also enhance the bioavailability of micronutrients in other foods such as cereals and pulses.

Jorge Torre, Director of Comunidad y Biodiversidad, brought our attention to people involved in small scale fisheries. 50% of people in fisheries are women, but decision making is often done only by men. We need gender equality in decision making.

Ling Cao, Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is an expert on Chinese aquaculture. 70% of fish in the world is produced by China, of which aquaculture accounts for 70%. With a growing population, we need to develop aquaculture or increase fishing in the ocean. Challenges in aquaculture include aquafeed’s dependence on wild fisheries, ecosystem impacts, and pollution issues.

Samuel Myers from the Planetary Health Alliance reiterated that we need to bridge terrestrial food cultivation with fisheries and aquaculture. Fisheries and aquaculture systems that are export-oriented bring fewer benefits to locals; we need to protect local fisheries.

The Q&A session was packed with great questions from the audience; one of the most discussed topics was aquaculture. To make aquaculture more sustainable, we cannot rely on wild fisheries to feed farmed fish, so innovations in aquafeed are critically important. There needs to be more polyculture, where different species are produced in the same area. Looking forward, producers should adopt best practices for aquaculture — a food systems approach.

This panel addresses many challenges that global food systems face in a truly integrated way. Over the next few decades, unprecedented changes in population, incomes, technology, and environment will drive major transformation of what we eat and how we produce it. As consumers, we make integrated decisions on food every time we go to the grocery store; we think about nutrition as well as environmental and social sustainability while making choices. The discussion of global food systems should address all these areas, and it needs to integrate the oceans.

Watch the session recording here.

Safari Fang is a Coastal Science and Policy Fellow at University of California, Santa Cruz. Dr. Nikhil Srinivasapura Venkateshmurthy is Project Manager at Public Health Foundation of India. They were speaker ambassadors for Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted during the 2019 Planetary Health Meeting.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.

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