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Aquaculture has enormous potential

Dr. Matthias Halwart, Head of the FAO Aquaculture Branch, presenting the newly launched report on The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to Prof. Wang Xiaohu, President of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences in Qingdao, P.R. China, at the margins of the International Forum on Aquaculture for Silk Road Countries.
Arid regions and deserts need special considerations; here FAO is supporting pond aquaculture connected with dates and fruit tree production to conserve precious water.
We currently farm almost 600 aquatic species and harvest over 1800 species, and these aquatic genetic resources are an invaluable reserve of biodiversity of finfish, molluscs, crustaceans, vascular and non-vascular plants, and microorganisms. They furthermore contribute to livelihoods, as seen here at a roadside market in Lao PDR
Rice-fish culture dates back over 4000 years as the earliest example of aquaculture, and yet remains a relevant practice that increases income and decreases negative environmental impacts

Capture fisheries cannot meet global demand: Already today every second food fish is farmed. In order to feed the growing human population even more fish from aquaculture will be required. This is a key message of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) addressed through a new report. Dr Matthias Halwart, Branch Head of FAO’s Aquaculture Division, talked to us on the prospects of fish farming. 

Dr Halwart, when speaking of aquaculture, most Germans tend to first think of salmon …

It is true that salmon is an important farmed fish in our seas, although globally there are more than 500 species grown in aquaculture. We therefore have an incredible diversity at the species level, in a way that we do not see at all in livestock production. In fact two thirds of global aquaculture production takes place in inland freshwater areas and most fish are farmed in ponds. 

Last August you launched, on behalf of FAO, the first Report on “The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture”. What exactly did you investigate there? 

The somewhat cumbersome term “aquatic genetic resources for food and agriculture” includes all animals, plants and microorganisms living in aquatic environments. In the Report we primarily focus on animals relevant to our nutrition that is the fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and so forth. Among experts we tend to combine all of these under the umbrella term “fish”. The Report highlights the current state of these resources and describes where the need for action lies so that we may leave behind a sustainable food system for future generations. The annual growth rate of aquaculture is around six per cent – no other food sector is growing at such a rate.  

What are the drivers of this growth?

The catch of wild fish has been stable since the 1980s with an annual harvest of 90 to 95 million tonnes. Over this time the production from aquaculture has significantly increased – just as the number of humans on earth has grown. Demand for fish will grow at a further 1.2 percent per year and will reach over 200 million tonnes by 2030. In order to feed a growing, and in some parts of the world wealthier, population, and to make sure fish is a component of a sustainable and healthy diet, we need to further expand aquaculture. In doing so, fish farming needs to be optimized through genetic improvement. 

What do you mean with genetic improvement? 

It is about the kind of breeding programs that have been implemented in agriculture for decades. With fish there is enormous potential for improvement: up to ten percent increased growth per generation! Our aim is therefore to enable developing countries to initiate their own breeding programs, which we support by providing technical know-how as well as assistance in better management of their aquatic genetic resources. This also helps to improve the livelihoods of those working in fish farms. 

Some fish species in aquaculture require a greater feed intake of wild fish than is reflected in their weight gain. How may this poor conversion efficiency be changed? 

In this regard aquaculture has already made substantial progress. Much research is also being done on alternative feed ingredients. Agricultural by-products such as residues from brewing or even insects may become sustainable alternatives in the near future. Even primary products from the sea, such as algae, will reduce the future input of raw fish, fish meal and fish oil as feed ingredients, thereby contributing to the conservation of marine biodiversity. However, when discussing feed ingredients, one should also keep in mind that today a third of the global fish production already comes from so-called “non-fed-aquaculture”.

What exactly does “non-fed aquaculture” mean?

It means aquatic animals that are not fed but instead feed on microorganisms, for example algae, at the bottom of the food chain. Algal growth can be triggered through fertilization of the water. There is a clear economic incentive for sustainable farming: the less feed ingredients, land and water that are required for fish farming, the less the financial burden that falls upon the farmer. Some fish farmers, for instance, combine fish farming with rice or vegetable cultivation in order to optimize land use. 

How does climate change affect fish production?

In marine fish stocks, we expect that the maximum catch potential will decrease by about three to twelve percent by 2050. In aquaculture, climate change will exacerbate the competition for freshwater resources. In this context, sustainable farming operations with low water requirements have an advantage. Since we have such a wide diversity of aquatic genetic resources, we can try to adapt individual species to changing environmental conditions. Carp farmers in Hungary, for instance, successfully conserve various strains that are adapted to different agro-climatic conditions such as higher temperatures.

Interview led by Ulrike Wronski.

German contribution promoting global engagement

The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is based on the country reports of 92 nations, which together represent 96 percent of global aquaculture production. The Federal Office for Agriculture and Food, on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), and in collaboration with the German Expert Committee on Aquatic Genetic Resources, prepared the German country report. It also is represented with an expert in the FAO Advisory Working Group on Aquatic Genetic Resources and Technologies. Through the BMEL, Germany allocated funds for developing countries to enable their participation in the reporting process, and is also supporting individual projects. This includes, for example, the creation of an FAO-coordinated information system in which all globally farmed aquatic resources, including the most important farmed types, will be recorded.

The original interview can be found here:

A rice-fish demonstration plot in Yogyakarta, Indonesia showcases the synergies between agriculture and aquaculture
Effective enabling environment, together with cold, deep water with strong currents, make salmon culture in Norway a model of successful intensive aquaculture.


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