Fish can help fight malnutrition, says environmental social scientist

Inequalities in food systems have created micronutrient deficiencies around the world, and fish has the potential to help remedy the problem, according to environmental social scientist Christina Hicks, who completed a scholarship from early-career social science research at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions in 2015.

Food systems encompass food-related activities from production to consumption. Hicks highlighted inequities in the global food system during a Friday lecture sponsored by the Hopkins Marine Station, citing that North America receives the highest volume of food produced globally per capita, while Asia from the South receives the smallest. “More alarming,” Hicks said, is a “difference in the types of food circulating in different regions.”

Nutrient-dense animal foods, such as red meat, poultry and eggs, make up about 30% to 50% of food available on the market in North America and Europe, according to Hicks, compared to about 10% in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, less nutritious starchy vegetables make up 40% of food available in sub-Saharan Africa.

Inequitable food distribution leads to micronutrient deficiencies, or “hidden hunger,” in children who don’t have access to nutrient-dense foods, Hicks said. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals needed in small amounts for healthy development, especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, according to Hicks. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, micronutrients are lacking in children’s diets at this important stage of life.

Hicks added that inequitable food distribution also harms the environment. Red meat and whole grains are overproduced globally, and much of the whole grain is used to feed livestock.

The past few years have been “pretty dire” for food security, Hicks said. She noted that between 2016 and 2021, the number of people globally facing acute food insecurity nearly doubled to 193 million, largely due to conflict, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. .

“Food systems provide food, a basic need and a human right, but they don’t provide it to everyone, and not equitably and not equally across the world,” Hicks said. “Our food systems are largely failing.”

Because of these concerns, Hicks and his research team set out to study the role and potential of fish in people’s diets and in the global food system. Using data on the nutrient profiles of various fish species, Hicks said he developed models that “incorporated phylogeny, as well as environmental, dietary and energy traits” to predict the nutrient content of fish species.

During their research, the team identified associations between fish species and micronutrient concentrations. For example, Hicks said he found that species in tropical thermal regimes were rich in calcium, iron, and zinc.

“It gives us a general rule of thumb for understanding what kinds of fish are going to be high in what kinds of nutrients,” Hicks said.

Their findings suggest that enough fish are caught to fill nutrient gaps in areas of the world where those gaps are greatest, according to Hicks. She cited the case of Kiribati, a Pacific island country in which the dietary risk of calcium deficiency is 82%: retaining only 1% of the fish caught in its waters would meet the calcium needs of its children under five years, according to Hicks.

Foreign fishing and trade divert nutrients from areas of the world where nutrient deficiencies are more prevalent, according to Hicks. “We have this real availability of these nutrients in places where they really matter, but the nutrients aren’t getting to the populations that need them,” she said.

To address this issue, Hicks said it was important to invest in equitable, sustainable and inclusive fisheries management approaches, as small-scale fisheries will continue to be important sources of nutrition in developing countries. low income.

“Flaws in our food system linked to entrenched power dynamics create inequities that harm both the people and the environment we depend on,” Hicks said. “We need to develop policies that can center the principles of trust” and “put food before trade and profit”.

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