Aquatic foods make a crucial but under-recognised contribution to nutrition and health
Aquatic foods, such as fish, crustaceans and even algae, make an under-recognised contribution to nutrition and health for many people around the world.
They can also be produced with a lower environmental impact compared to many land-based foods.
Aquatic foods have not received the attention they deserve in global research and policy efforts related to sustainable diets and food and nutrition security.
Currently, one in three people around the world suffer from some form of malnutrition. Around 700 million people are hungry, around two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and around two billion adults are overweight or obese. Aquatic foods offer unique potential to reduce these multiple forms of malnutrition.
Aquatic foods are a rich source of high-quality protein as well as micronutrients like iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin A. These nutrients are also highly bioavailable in aquatic foods. This means they are easily absorbed by the body. Many aquatic foods are also known to reduce the risk and severity of non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease. However, simply producing more aquatic foods will not allow this potential to be realised.
Connecting consumption and production
We are taking a systems approach to this issue, linking production and consumption, to identify the opportunities and challenges for enhancing the contribution of aquatic foods to healthy and sustainable diets.
This is often challenging because food systems are highly complex, involving many different elements, activities and actors. For example, data on production, value chains and consumption are housed by different groups and not easily comparable.
By triangulating different data sources, we can take a zoomed out 'systems-view' of aquatic foods systems.
In a study of Bangladesh, where fish is the most important animal food eaten, we found that rapid growth in aquaculture production over the last 30 years allowed people to eat more fish, but they were getting far fewer nutrients. This was because the farmed species being produced were less nutritious than local wild fish.
In Australia, where fish and seafood consumption has been growing, our research highlights considerable opportunities to improve processing and packaging technologies that would enhance nutritional quality and sustainability and create value from underutilised species and by-products.
Opportunities for health and sustainability
There are many opportunities for aquatic foods to play a greater role in improving nutrition and health.
Promoting a diversity of species within production systems, including those at the bottom of the food chain, enhances the nutritional quality of production as well as the resilience and sustainability of food systems.
Novel metrics like nutritional yield can be used to compare and contrast the nutritional quality of different production systems. This helps to inform planning of appropriate food production systems that can respond to unique nutrition issues in various contexts. To support this, more data on the nutritional quality of aquatic foods, particularly indigenous species is needed. Currently, the nutrient composition for only a fraction of commonly consumed aquatic foods across the world has been documented.
Reducing loss and waste throughout aquatic food supply chains offers duel benefits of improving system sustainability and increasing the availability of aquatic foods for human consumption. Creating markets for underutilised species could significantly reduce bycatch and reduce pressure on overfished stocks. Innovative processing and packaging techniques can also help reduce waste and loss across the value chain and should focus on retaining nutritional quality of the end-products for consumers. Investments in supply chain infrastructure, particularly in low and middle income countries will be crucial in both reducing waste and loss as well as increasing the availability and affordability of aquatic foods.