Two brilliant positives

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By: The fishmonger * 

Providing food for a growing global population within planetary ecological limits is a major challenge without naysayers and negativity, especially in these difficult pandemic days. So, with that background, it is essential we do not get depressed on the journey, so to assist, here are two pieces of positive seafood news that we all need to grasp and promote to show that fish/seafood is the protein for the future.

Firstly, the 2021 World Food Prize has been awarded to Dr. Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted for her ground-breaking research, critical insights, and landmark innovations in developing holistic, nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquaculture and food systems. By bringing together interdisciplinary and international collaborators, she has driven transformations in aquatic food systems to deliver improved nutrition, resilient ecosystems, and secure livelihoods for millions of vulnerable people across the globe.

The Fishmonger first met this great lady in 2010 when speaking at the FAO Global Conference on Aquaculture in Phuket, Thailand and was immediately impressed with her passion and desire in helping in nourishing hundreds of millions of people who depend on fish and other aquatic foods as an integral part of their food security, livelihoods, and culture. 

Dr. Thilsted is a citizen of Denmark, although born in Trinidad and Tobago. Her family were descendants of Indian families brought there as agricultural laborers. We learned that Shakuntala would observe her grandmother’s cooking and appreciate the nuances of its impact on health as a young girl. She started her career as the first and only woman in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, and Fisheries on the island of Tobago and has flourished from that time and is currently Global Lead for Nutrition and Public Health, WorldFish.

In 2011 Dr. Thilsted made an important keynote presentation at The Seafood & Health Conference in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2015 she was recognized as one of the few women invited to present a plenary at WAS Global Aquaculture Conference in Jeju, Korea. 

Increase in consumption of fish in Bangladesh

In evaluating the nutritional composition of small native fish species in Southeast Asia, Thilsted was the first to establish that commonly consumed small fish were important sources of essential micronutrients and fatty acids. In addition, she led ground-breaking research showing that the content and bioavailability of necessary nutrients in small fish species were much higher than previously reported and revealing that consuming fish enhanced the absorption of nutrients from plant-based foods. This new, expanded knowledge of the nutritional profile of fish reshaped the scientific understanding of the benefits of fish in diets.

“Eating more fish and other aquatic foods means a more diverse and nutritious diet. Aquatic food needs more space on people’s plates across the world,” Thilsted said.

With this information, Thilsted set out to increase consumption of small fish, especially for women and their children in the first 1000 days of life, the most critical period for nutrition in a child’s development. To this end, Thilsted pioneered more productive, environmentally responsible fish farming methods, developed culturally appropriate fish-based foods, and promoted nutrition-sensitive practices and policies with communities, researchers, development agencies, and government institutions.

In Bangladesh, smallholder farmers supply most of the fish production from the country’s four million household ponds. In the 1970s, most fish farmers “cleaned” their ponds with pesticides. This expensive practice was thought to eliminate competition from the small, lower-yielding native fish species before farmers stocked their ponds with more marketable fish such as carp or tilapia. 

From her research, Thilsted knew the importance of small, native fish species, such as Mola (Amblypharyngodon mola), for a nutritious diet. Working closely with Dr. Abdul Wahab, Dean of the Faculty of Fisheries at the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), she initiated a partnership with BAU and the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (now part of the University of Copenhagen) in the 1990s. Together, they led a talented team of Bangladeshi and Danish students and researchers in developing pond polyculture systems, farming small fish together with large fish. 

Contrary to popular belief at the time, small fish did not compete with large fish for space or food. Instead, the approach increased total productivity by as much as five times and enhanced species diversity and the nutritional value of the production. Furthermore, consumption of fish in the home increased when Thilsted introduced an inexpensive, homemade gill net designed for women to harvest mola in small amounts for daily household use easily. Incredibly, though mola only accounted for 15 percent of production by weight, it contributed 54 percent of vitamin A, 42 percent of vitamin B12, and a quarter of the calcium and iron of the needs of a family of four.

“Understanding that increased fish production was just one part of nutrition-sensitive food systems, Thilsted extended her innovative approach by creating new, ready-to-use, fish-based foods especially targeted for mothers and their young children, who are particularly vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies.”

As a woman and a researcher espousing better nutrition rather than simply increasing production, Thilsted had to work hard to convince her peers of the merits of pond polyculture. Her efforts paid off in 2004 when the Bangladesh Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock banned cleaning ponds and prohibited the use of pesticides to kill naturally occurring fish. Thilsted had convinced the leadership of a nation to convert to practices that were not only more economical and nutrition-sensitive but reduced environmental pressures, habitat loss, and health risks in rural communities. The results have been stunning.

Understanding that increased fish production was just one part of nutrition-sensitive food systems, Thilsted extended her innovative approach by creating new, ready-to-use, fish-based foods especially targeted for mothers and their young children, who are particularly vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies. Building on popular local recipes, she developed original whole dried fish food products, such as fish chutney and fish powder, with four times the nutrient density of fresh fish. Improvements in processing practices also resulted in reduced fish waste and loss and increased incomes for entrepreneurs, most of them women, who produced these value-added foods. 

Worldfish reported that guided by her insights into the role of fish in increasing the absorption of minerals from plant-source foods; she created highly nutritious combinations of dried fish, high-iron rice, and vitamin A-rich orange sweet potato. She then promoted pond polyculture together with sweet potato and vegetable cultivation as a practical way for rice farmers to diversify their farms and diets. In Cambodia, where millions of people depend on rice field fisheries for income and food, she helped establish rice field ponds to produce fish through the dry season.

“The understanding of what is wildlife and what is food is determined predominantly by necessity. Many nations are not necessarily more enlightened than the communities that still hunt whales for their meat, but wealthier nations show arrogance in that area”.

BRAC and the Copenhagen Consensus Center evaluated Thilsted’s pond polyculture system as one of the most cost-effective methods of supplying nutrients in Bangladesh. For supplying vitamin A alone, pond polyculture generated 3.5 U.S. dollars of benefits for each dollar spent. This conclusion prompted the government of Bangladesh to promote pond polyculture as the foremost food-based intervention in its country investment plan, dramatically increasing the supply and consumption of fish produced across the country by smallholder farmers, 60 percent of them women.

Since 2000, aquaculture production in Bangladesh has increased threefold, and the sector now supports 18 million people, making Bangladesh the fifth largest aquaculture producer in the world. Increased incomes and access to nutritious fish contributed to Bangladesh cutting chronic hunger by more than half and the number of underweight children by one quarter within the same period.

Shakuntala is reported as saying, “When I visited the villages in which pregnant women had got the fish chutney, villagers will greet me, saying: ‘Come let us show you the Pusti Bachcha,’ meaning ‘Well-nourished Children’ – and they would lead me to a home with a glad mother and a well-nourished child.”

The Fishmonger finds it interesting that poor people are not seeking costly certification, which has been allowed to build an additional wall between producers and consumers. 

Bivalve and seaweed habitat value analysis 

The second important positive news relates to an important systematic literature review of studies focused on understanding habitat-related interactions associated with bivalve and seaweed aquaculture and a brief meta-analysis of 65 studies to evaluate fish and mobile macroinvertebrate populations at farms and reference sites. The paper which has recently been published is ‘Habitat value of bivalve shellfish and seaweed aquaculture for fish and invertebrates: Pathways, synthesis and next steps’ by Seth J. Theuerkauf et al. 

The document states that bivalve and seaweed aquaculture were associated with higher abundance and species richness of wild, mobile macrofauna. Suspended or elevated mussel and oyster culture yielded the largest increases in wild macrofaunal abundance and species richness. They describe the major mechanisms and pathways by which bivalve and seaweed aquaculture may positively influence the structure and function of faunal communities including provision of structured habitat, provision of food resources and enhanced reproduction and recruitment and identify the role of the species cultivated and cultivation gear in affecting habitat value.”

The conclusion of the paper highlights that global objectives attest to the complexity of realizing multiple goals for sustainable development, goals that have inherent and often unavoidable trade-offs, such as realizing effective security in seafood production and biodiversity outcomes. In recent years, a major trend within food systems research has been to advance food production methods that reduce negative environmental impacts and simultaneously provide ecological value (e.g., ecosystem service provision, regenerative approaches to agriculture).

“The projected rapid growth of aquaculture presents an opportunity to focus on developing the positive influence of this sector, guiding it towards being one that produces food alongside a wide range of ecological values for marine and coastal environments. A deeper understanding of the role of existing bivalve and seaweed aquaculture practices within ecosystems and the farming practices, markets, and management options that create and enhance ecological value are necessary to achieve this objective.”

Additionally, they identify that higher abundance and species richness of wild mobile macrofauna are generally associated with bivalve and seaweed aquaculture (than reference sites) and that certain species groups (i.e., oysters and mussels) and cultivation methods (i.e. off-bottom) provide measurable enhancements. Future research should seek to understand how aquaculture can best function in step with local environmental characteristics, appropriate culture intensities and scales, and farm management practices that drive consistent, potentially widespread delivery of habitat values. If repeatable operational circumstances for habitat benefits can be identified and acknowledged or rewarded through proactive policy or market-based incentives, it would become possible to expand local effects to generate regional and national ecosystem outcomes.

As our understanding of the ecological role of bivalve and seaweed aquaculture within coastal ecosystems deepens, corresponding changes in the industry’s existing management could reinforce practices that improve aquaculture’s delivery of habitat values and ecosystem services and potentially achieve impact at a global scale.

The understanding of what is wildlife and what is food is determined predominantly by necessity. Many nations are not necessarily more enlightened than the communities that still hunt whales for their meat, but wealthier nations show arrogance in that area. We need to understand that not everyone is able to turn food into wildlife or pets (who need feeding, by the way).

Governments and industry need to grasp these two important news items and get cracking with their plans to take up the aquaculture challenges for the sake of their nation’s future food security and nutrition.

Happy Fishmongering!

*References cited by the author available under previous request to our editorial team 

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