Time to get food security right

Published on
June 6, 2011

Angst about the world’s food security situation and the need for sustainable development is growing in the United Kingdom and has become a popular subject in the media. The latest scare story is the global shortage that has pushed the price of grain up 70 percent in the last six months, which will almost certainly affect the price of fish feed.  

The recent Foresight report from the UK Government Office for Science, titled “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability,” clearly explains there is limited capacity for increasing the global supply of food by bringing more land into agricultural use. It also recognizes that the large increase in seafood production needed over the next 20 to 30 years will come largely from aquaculture. 

A key finding of this report is that concerted action is needed on many fronts and that, most importantly, action must come urgently. It highlights that the challenges of food security are so great that they cannot be met by individuals but must tackled by society as a whole. 

But what does this mean for the global seafood industry?  

The need to rebuild fish stocks, to reduce discards and to develop more selective fishing gear is well recognized by the catching sector. The need for more efficient fish feeds, better husbandry, improved disease control and a wider selection of cultivated species is being addressed by the aquaculture sector. And the need to educate consumers is being tackled by retailers.

These sections of the industry have a vested interest in ensuring its survival, because their businesses depend on it. 

A question mark is raised, however, about the environmental community that has built up around the industry. These well-funded and mostly well-intentioned NGOs have few checks and balances on the advice they dispense, and their messages can be naïve and confused. 

For example, the general advice of eNGOs is to avoid eating farmed fish that are fed on other fish, as this puts pressure on the stocks of feed fish. The idea is that the feed fish would become available for consumers, leading to greater overall human fish consumption and lower pressure on forage fish stocks. 

This ignores reality. These feed fish are already available for human consumption, and are sold as such when a market can be found. They will continue to be caught regardless of market, as they are generally well-managed and rapidly renewable stocks. And feeding them to other fish is a far more efficient use than using them for poultry or pig food.

The end result of such advice would be to reduce the overall quantity of human food available, reduce the seafood consumption of people reliant on aquaculture, increase pressure on wild stocks of consumable fish, and do nothing positive toward sustainability.

London-based retailer Selfridges is the latest to tackle this issue with “Project Ocean” and has worked in partnership with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to “inform” people what is sustainably safe to eat. 

While agreeing that salmon is a popular species in the UK, the MCS does not support salmon farming — except organic — so nor does Selfridges. Instead, the retailer recommends Pacific salmon, but fails to realize that a great deal of these fish start their lives in a hatchery.

Confused? So are consumers, and at the launch event a member of the public asked why the industry does not simply make the switch to sustainable species and sell, for example, generic “sustainable fish and chips.” She believed that taste was more important for consumers and suggested they were happy to leave the technicalities of getting it right to the people in the know. She has a point, but who should make those decisions?  

Governments have long recognized that populations are just four, five or six meals away from anarchy but should start to realize that leaving the business of sustainability advice to self-appointed guardians with an unclear agenda is a high-risk strategy. There needs to be more lateral thinking strategies if progress is to be made on what, quite literally, is a life and death issue.

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