Fish farming vs. capture: Southeast Asia joins the debate

Called the Global Workshop on Nutrition-Sensitive Fish Agrifood Systems, it took place in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, and was attended by Professor David Little of the Stirling Institute of Aquaculture. Here he describes some of the main topics discussed during the workshop.

The meeting brought together an eclectic group of aquaculture developers and researchers, primarily from Asia-Pacific and Africa, with expertise in food systems and nutrition. It is worth noting the impressive participation of donors such as the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, JICA and IFAD – for whom food and nutrition security and, in particular, the role of aquatic foods, climb the list of funding priorities.

The reason for this interest was outlined at the start of the meeting by its organizer, Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted, a nutritionist who has specialized in people-centered dietary strategies for over 20 years. As fish consumption continues to grow and becomes increasingly dependent on farmed fish and other aquatic foods, there is growing concern about how its unique nutritional qualities can be retained.

Recognized as an important source of essential micronutrients and fats, fish has struggled to secure its place in food and nutrition security discussions, even though its critical dietary value for the world’s poor is well established. The balance between sourcing from unmanaged stocks – the world’s last great source of wild food, and closing the cycle to produce food under more controlled farmed conditions emerged as a key issue. This is particularly the case as many countries have plans to modernize their aquaculture sectors in the face of declining wild stocks and growing demand from urban populations. Evidence was presented from Bangladesh and Thailand where this trend is well underway and where the choice of wild fish has declined in markets and more uniform farmed fish dominate.

This contrasts with Cambodia and Myanmar where, despite growing cultivation, wildlife still abounds, somewhat protected by their less regulated floodplains. However, this situation is likely to change as the hydrology of their river delta systems are increasingly modified to meet these countries’ goals for more staple food crops, especially rice production. Differences in the levels of certain micronutrients in wild fish compared to species commonly stocked in hatcheries have therefore sounded the alarm. However, the warning signs have been around for some time, particularly in Bangladesh. A landmark study by Nanna Roos, now of the University of Copenhagen, pointed out that small native fish species (SIS) are particularly good for the nutrition of poor people. At that time, SISs were accessible, affordable, and part of the daily diet. The study coincided with a take-off and intensification of aquaculture in Bangladesh and a radical recalibration of the fish species the poor could access.

Today, the poorest people find farmed fish more affordable in Bangladesh because its price has fallen in real terms. In comparison, declining stocks have driven up the price of wild fish. Since then, renewed interest has emerged among local researchers, as evidenced by the worn state of Dr. Roos’ doctoral thesis, at the Bangladesh Agricultural University Library, where the work was based. The Siem Reap workshop, in addition to informative and thought-provoking plenary papers, provided time for 60-second presentations to a wide range of participants to promote their posters. Many of these contributions were based on how these SISs might be conserved or reintroduced into modified culture systems.

Reasons for optimism

The workshop, hosted by the CGIAR WorldFish Center, is expected to serve as a benchmark in efforts to link aquaculture to nutritional outcomes. A better understanding of current systems and the potential impacts on nutritional quality of changes in cultured fish systems is essential to this process. There are many reasons to be optimistic.

First, the situation is not as dire as many would make it out to be. Most farmed fish are still produced in high micronutrient quality systems, despite intensification – especially relative to other animal source foods and given other changes in diets. Preserving natural foods in the diets of farmed fish appears to be a simple and inexpensive way to achieve this.

Second, it must be recognized that scaling up is not always desirable or inevitable. On the third day, workshop participants were treated to an educational tour of surrounding farms that produce fish. Note my wording. Farms that produce fish rather than “fish farms”. In parts of the world where fish are of greatest dietary importance, flood management is how people produce most of their food, both staples like rice and a range of vegetables. other aquatic animals and vegetables which together constitute nutritious diets. We need to see fish production as part of a larger food landscape. Perhaps new to many researchers and donors, much evidence presented at the workshop shows that this integrated concept has a strong cultural connection to farming families in countries like Cambodia. Evidence from other countries in the region has shown that such practices can co-exist and co-evolve with more commercial and specialized production that focuses on urban markets.

The micronutrient status of fish, both wild and farmed, is the industry’s unique selling point and must be maintained. This will require aquatic system designers, nutritionists and breeders to focus their efforts together in the future.

But there is also an urgent need to ensure that vulnerable groups have better access to fish. Supporting targeted interventions was a recurring theme of the workshop and the use of traditional fish preservation techniques for products that can be consumed by vulnerable young children and adolescent girls was demonstrated during our field visit. If the workshop had a flaw, it was the lack of commercial interests present. Local production of such products can work for rural populations, but urbanization of fish-consuming countries will require well-regulated value chain development to commercialize safe nutritious products at scale. Investors (local and international) and food processors will need to understand the potential of the sector, so it was encouraging that a social enterprise producing fish-based snacks was present.

At least this workshop will have refocused the minds of participants on the fact that nutrition outcomes are as critical as other sustainability goals, and broadened and enriched the networks of all those who participated.

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