Uptick in fish farming to provide global nutrition boost – UN agency report

In Ha Trung, Viet Nam, farmers use a net to catch fish from a pond at their farm. Photo: FAO/Hoang Dinh Nam

14 November 2014 – An upsurge in fish farming is expected to provide millions of people in developing countries with better access to improved nutrition over the coming decade, a new report released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has confirmed.

According to the 120-page report, increased investment in the global aquaculture sector may boost farmed-fish production, especially in Africa and in Asia, by more than four per cent through 2022, as producers focus more intently on productivity-enhancing technologies such as water use, breeding, hatchery practices and feedstuff innovation.

“The primary reason for increased optimism is that there is ample room for catching up with more productive technologies, especially in Asia, where many fish farmers are small and unable to foot the hefty capital outlays the industry requires to expand output without running into resource constraints,” explained Audun Lem, a senior official at FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Economics Division and one of the lead authors of the report.

Aquaculture emerged as a food industry in the 1950s and expanded rapidly over the years, culminating with a record global production of 66.5 million tonnes in 2012. Its success and value as an industry in the developing world meant it would eventually supplant traditional export items such as tea, rice, cocoa, and coffee in terms of net revenue.

More importantly, notes the report, is the added nutrition value an uptick in fish stocks will bring to areas of the world experiencing malnutrition as it helps feed millions of undernourished people and brings critical micronutrients to millions of children currently suffering from vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Currently, an estimated 800,000 children die each year from zinc deficiency; 250 million children worldwide are at risk of vitamin A deficiency; and almost a third of the world’s population is iron deficient. Seafood is also one of the only natural sources of iodine available.

“Fish is not just food,” says Jogeir Toppe, a FAO officer and expert on fish and nutrition. “The highest iron, zinc and calcium content of fish lies in their heads, bones and guts, which is often the part that gets thrown away, as with tuna.”

In Bangladesh, for instance, a pond fish known as mola contains extremely high levels of zinc, iron and vitamin A as well as 80 times the calcium content as tilapia. The report added that African lake sardines have “similar micronutrient profiles” while numerous other indigenous fish have yet to be studied.

One key element highlighted by the FAO relates to the nutrition levels in fish consumed by wealthier households. The report, in fact, observes that as incomes rise, households tend to shift away from more nutrition-rich fish to what the industry terms “trash fish” – fattier and filet-friendly species such as carp which are “less efficient providers of micronutrients.”

Mr. Toppe pointed out that by-products such as fish heads or the back-bones of Nile perch, whose fresh fillets are exported, may often be of higher nutritional value than the main product.

As a result of its findings, the FAO calls upon policy makers to “take such nutritional considerations aboard, especially in a phase of growing aquaculture operations” an analyse fish farming through a broad food system lens – ranging from environmental impacts and hydropower projects to the employment of women in local retail networks.

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