The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that fish consumption per person globally has more than doubled over the past five decades. But scientists say governments should now focus more on the nutritional quality of fisheries.
The development of fisheries that are nutrition-sensitive would improve nutritional outcomes instead of only production and trade values, says a study in the May issue of the journal Food Policy. Fisheries refer to harvesting of aquatic animals from wild populations and aquaculture.
By adopting a nutrition-sensitive approach, the study argues that fisheries present many untapped opportunities to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to provide accessible and nutritious foods for all.
Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, lead author of the study, says that while past policies targeted hunger and have successfully increased food production, “in areas where people have more than enough staple food, they remain malnourished”.
“We want to develop food production systems, in this case fisheries, that improve nutrition and health of the populations,” stresses Thilsted, a senior nutrition advisor with the international research organisation WorldFish.
Fisheries need to better diversify their products to provide greater diversity of foods, and hence nutrition. Capture fisheries must also conserve ecosystems for sustainable and diverse harvests from the wild.
On the other hand, aquaculture — which is seen to supply 63 per cent of global fish demand by 2030 — produces mainly large species, which Thilsted and her colleagues say are less nutritious than the small fish from capture fisheries.
“If we only focus on tilapia, we limit what people can cook and eat, and the nutritional benefits they can get from diverse fish species,” explains Thilsted. Tilapia fish is a major aquaculture commodity; China and South-East Asia are the largest producers.
The study suggests that aquaculture produces a mix of nutritious small fish species and large species for the market to optimise resource use and product diversity.
“If one evaluates other aspects of development, such as nutrition and health of children, in the long term, these [production-focused] policies in fisheries are not optimal for national development,” adds Thilsted.
However, Weimin Miao, aquaculture officer at the FAO regional office in Bangkok, cautions against overemphasising nutritional outcomes as specific goals for fisheries development when current production lags behind demand.
Exaggerating the difference of some “micronutrients between different fish might lead us to overlook the overall importance of fish as an important source of healthier animal food”, he says.
Miao thinks it is more pertinent to increase supply of affordable fish, particularly for local low-income groups, instead of setting nutritional outcomes as goals that “are rather difficult to quantify and measure”.