People have been farming fish for thousands of years. Today, a wide range of plants and animals are grown in aquaculture.

With an overall growth rate of 11 percent a year since 1984 aquaculture has been the world's fastest growing food production sector for nearly 20 years, compared with a 3 percent increase for livestock meat and 1.6 percent increase for capture fisheries.

Total aquaculture production in 1999 was about 42.77 million tonnes, valued at US$53.56 billion. Nearly one third of all the fish we eat is currently produced by aquaculture. Asia, which accounts for 90 percent of global aquaculture production, is clearly the world's leader.

In 1997, freshwater aquaculture (predominately finfish) accounted for over 45 percent of total world aquaculture production. Plants and molluscs from marine waters contributed about 20 and 24 percent respectively. While brackish water aquaculture currently contributes less than 5 percent to the world total (by weight), production is mainly shrimp so its share by value is about 15 percent.

Several low-income food-deficit countries are big aquaculture producers. In these countries aquaculture contributes to poverty alleviation and to the enhanced supply of fish products to poor people in rural and urban areas. Many developing countries export aquaculture products and in many cases aquaculture has become a major source of hard currency, which is used to invest in further development or to service foreign debt.

As an inexpensive source of a highly nutritious animal protein, aquaculture raises levels of nutrition and alleviates poverty, particularly in the world's poorest countries. FAO's Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) has made aquaculture development a priority under its diversification component.

Integrated aquaculture has a variety of benefits for farmers in addition to the production of fish for consumption or sale. In Asia, for example, rice farmers use certain species of fish to fight rice pests such as the golden snail. With rice-fish farming, they boost their rice yields and harvest the fish. Under FAO's SPFS programme, farmers in Zambia are introducing small ponds into their home gardens for irrigation and aquaculture. Mud from the bottom of fish ponds is also an organic mineral-rich fertilizer.

In some cases, rapid and unregulated growth in aquaculture production has led to environmental damage, triggered conflicts over scant resources and alienated public opinion. In response, FAO and its partners have placed special emphasis on developing strategies for policy and planning that address the social, environmental and regulatory issues surrounding sustainable aquaculture development.

The mission of the Fisheries Department of FAO is to facilitate and secure the long-term sustainable development and utilization of the world's fisheries and aquaculture.

FAO has more than 66 ongoing field projects in fisheries, including not only specific fisheries projects, but also multi-disciplinary projects where fisheries comprise a significant component, and which are organized with a global, inter-regional, regional or national scope.