Hunger, Food and Nutrition Security - The Role of Fish and Fisheries
The discussions, debates and policy making process with regard to food security around the world are largely centred on cereals, pulses and meats. Food policy is largely terrestrial oriented. This is primarily due to the fact that they account for the larger source of calories needed for daily human consumption. Little is said about fish – even in countries where fish is central to people’s diets, irrespective of their income levels and social status. This is unfortunate to say the least. The pivotal role which fish can play in direct food security is not adequately recognised. Just as fish is not directly visible to fishers as it lives and grows, it also seems to be only on the periphery of policy makers’ concerns. Often it is even a ‘policy blind spot’!
In the context of hunger -- and obesity -- the role of fish as a wholesome and inexpensive food source for achieving food security merits serious consideration.
Humans cannot live by fish alone. But today there is growing evidence that small quantities of fish in human diets can make the crucial differences in early brain development; help development of bone and muscle tissue; ensure that blindness is prevented; prevent heart attacks and cancer and also mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS. Fish certainly contributes to nutritional security.
Where there are aquatic resources, there fish can be found naturally. Fish can also be easily cultured in different aquatic milieu. In rivers, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, floodplains, coastal waters and the open sea – fish and other edible aquatic organisms and plants are in plentiful supply.
Most developing countries are blessed with a large share of such aquatic resources making the potential for development of fisheries a natural choice. With small, dedicated and ‘quality-investments’ of time and money, the returns in the form of fish can be substantial. Thus, contrary to popular notions, the potential for harvesting and growing fish and making a direct contribution to increasing food supply, decreasing hunger and contributing to food security is considerable.
In this context, it is important to highlight that fish is not a homogenous product. Species diversity, and consequently physical form, is vast and manifold. However, the common feature of all fish species pertain to their relatively similar nutritional quality – i.e. the percentage of protein, fats, minerals, vitamins which one can obtain from a unit quantity of fish.
Therefore, if the concern is with fulfilling nutritional needs of the hungry, then an undue pre-occupation with ‘white flesh’ fish or species such as shrimp needs to be replaced with active publicity for more ‘small, skinny, oily’ species. These fish can be eaten whole or mixed with the staples such as rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, cassava and banana.
There are also indirect ways of achieving food security by the creation of employment and income earning possibilities in fishery related activities. When people have creative work opportunities and adequate income, they are in a position to make informed choices about their food.
In many developing countries the possibilities for raising the employment-intensity in fisheries is high. In several countries there are many small and medium sized water bodies into which fish can be introduced – if it has not already been done. If people in the rural areas are provided the training, appropriate fishing equipment, or credit to buy them, they can undertake fishing and earn a livelihood.
Global estimates suggest that for every job in the harvesting of fish, there are three or four created in the upstream activities of processing and marketing. For example, in many sub-Saharan countries, where hunger and food insecurity abound, just a minimal improvement in the road infrastructure and provision of labour intensive or animal drawn transportation vehicles (cycles, carts etc.) will vastly improve the scope for operating a distribution network for fish into the neighbouring hinterlands. The same can also be said about processing methods like drying and smoking which are favoured by poorer African consumers. Such choices provide jobs for hundreds and fish at affordable prices for thousands.
Though the potentials are vast, the concrete reality of fish in many developing countries today leaves much to be desired. In many countries, the crisis of the economy and the need for quick foreign exchange has resulted in fish exports becoming an easy way to earn foreign exchange. The domestic supply shortages have resulted in a market situation which ‘priced-out the poor’. Some of the highest rates of malnutrition, particularly among children and mothers, have been reported from countries which export fish. Examples abound from Latin America, Africa and South Asia. Policies to ensure that the compulsions of international trade do not create domestic hunger must be enacted.
So, wherever and whenever there is a discussion on hunger, food and food security we need to check out to see that the rightful role of fish is included.
Member, International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF)
This thematic discussion was led by FAO and WFP in collaboration with “The World We Want”.
The consultation was facilitated by the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)