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Global Aquaculture

Future Scenarios for Global Aquaculture and Its Role in Human Nutrition

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Based on a recently published study developed by an international research community from over 20 renown universities and institutions, this summarized article explores plausible aquaculture futures and their role in nutrition security using a qualitative scenario approach. Two dimensions of economic development – the degree of globalization and the predominant economic development philosophy – bound four scenarios representing systems that are either localized or globalized, and orientated toward maximizing sectorial economic growth or to meeting environmental and equity dimensions of sustainability. These scenarios can prompt discussion among researchers, policymakers, and advocacy groups about desirable futures for nutrition-sensitive aquaculture to help chart a course for how to get there.

Like any food production system, increasing aquaculture production will come with environmental costs. Environmental impacts, including those associated with energy use, water reliance, feed inputs, genetic risks and nutrient and pollutant release, vary widely because production systems and feed requirements are highly diverse, with around 460 species/ groups of algae, shellfish, and finfish raised in freshwater, brackish, and marine environments, using a wide range of technologies (Troell et al. 2014; Tacon 2020).

But within this variability lies opportunities. Evaluating nutritional contributions therefore requires a systems approach to understand the distribution of seafood, as well as the economic value derived from seafood along the supply chain.

“This approach avoids pitting one fish against another in search of a silver bullet and emphasizes the importance of considering aquaculture in the context of the diversity of foods in a food system (Tlusty et al. 2019).”

Nutrition-sensitive aquaculture is defined within this analysis as a food system that:

(i) supports public health outcomes through production of diverse seafood,

(ii) provides multiple, rich sources of essential, bioavailable nutrients, and

(iii) supports equitable access to nutritionally adequate, safe, and culturally acceptable diets that meet food preferences for all populations, without compromising ecosystem functions, other food systems, and livelihoods.

Key to nutrition-sensitive aquaculture is the shift from looking at aquaculture as primarily a means to produce seafood toward a means to create wellbeing, which necessitates accounting for socio-economic, environmental, and cultural dimensions.

Photograph credit: Hanson Lu


Photograph credit: Hanson Lu

Previous analyses of the future of aquaculture have used supply and demand models to project production and consumption levels based on observed patterns of consumption, price, and elasticity of demand (e.g. Kobayashi et al. 2015; Tran et al. 2019).

Although valuable for forecasting near-term demand, such projections are based on current diet patterns, trade environments, and governance contexts.

Their utility can be expanded when coupled with qualitative scenarios to understand the conditions that enable or inhibit nutrition-sensitive aquaculture, such as the role of public and private investments in shaping development trajectories, the trade policy environment, technological innovation and knowledge transfer, and the response of consumers to information and marketing campaigns (Asche 2008; Thong and Solgaard 2017; Garlock et al. 2020).

“Scenarios are plausible descriptions about how the future may develop, based on coherent and internally consistent relationships, but are not predictions or forecasts (Naki_ cenovi_c and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2000).”

Here, qualitative scenarios for future aquaculture are developed through a process of expert elicitation and focused on the medium term future (i.e. 2030–2050).

The presented scenarios can help prompt discussions about which futures are desirable. As the current food system experiences substantial shocks to both supply and demand, there is potential for the sector to reorganize and head down an alternate scenario path.


Future scenarios were developed using a version of the exploratory-strategic scenario methodology, following scenario development approaches used for socio-environmental decision-making (Reilly and Willenbockel 2010). The first step was to converge on the focal issue: the development of aquaculture and how different trajectories would likely affect its contribution to human nutrition.

The second step was to identify forces that are driving change in the aquaculture sector, with an emphasis on drivers that affect its intersection with the overall food system. The two drivers identified as most important, most uncertain, and uncorrelated to each other were used to bound four contrasting scenarios.

This was not a predictive exercise, meaning scenarios were not assigned probabilities. Instead, the scenarios focused on contrasting situations that are plausible given the identified uncertainties faced by aquaculture and food sectors, health, human development, and the environment.

Scenario results

The two key drivers identified as bounding the future of the aquaculture sector are economic globalization and economic growth trajectory.

Economic globalization refers to the structure of the global economy, within which aquaculture production and trade take place, and economic growth trajectory refers to the degree to which national, regional and global governance will influence the adjustment of the food system to emergent concerns for environmental sustainability and distributional equity.

The two axes relating to the degree of globalization and the economic growth philosophy create four quadrants, each representing a distinct future scenario explained below (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Visual representation of the two selected axes and four resulting scenarios.


Figure 1. Visual representation of the two selected axes and four resulting scenarios.

Aquatic chicken

The world moves toward further economic globalization and encourages boundless economic growth. Through genetic selection and modification, as well as technological innovations, the aquaculture industry develops intensive production systems with limited environmental regulation.

The highly intensive and controlled production systems prioritize reducing production cost, raising concerns regarding environmental impacts and animal welfare. Despite this, seafood products may still be environmentally efficient compared to other animal-source foods.

Production systems rely on globalized supply chains, sourcing feed ingredients internationally, taking advantage of low labor costs for processing, and utilizing co-products and by-products globally. Through competition, only the most profitable system- species combinations win out, resulting in massive production of only a few species, which are highly traded and spread rapidly.

This high level of production creates low global prices for such “aquatic chickens”, which occupy different price categories targeting different types of consumers and reach consumers around the globe due to low trade barriers.

This enhances access to seafood for those in urban areas and areas with good logistics. Self-provisioning and local smallholder production persist as part of integrated rural livelihoods for species not dependent on externally sourced seed, but this is marginal compared to a world where production is dominated by a few large species.

The “aquatic chicken” supply chains are generally vertically integrated and only a few companies control key components of the supply chain, especially breeding and feed production. This level of consolidation has both risks and benefits.

On the one hand, companies build significant knowledge with respect to production and marketing of these species and manage risk along the supply chain to reduce the probability of production disruptions. On the other hand, inherent low species diversity makes the systems vulnerable to disease, which can only partly be mitigated by improved knowledge about disease prevention and treatment.


In this scenario, countries throughout the world turn inward for economic growth and focus on supporting national industries to meet seafood demand.

While demand within countries continues to fuel production for domestic markets, limited technology transfer, sparse development, underdeveloped regulatory systems and import barriers for feeds result in less efficient production at the country level and higher prices.

“Such increases in prices reduce access to seafood by the poor, and lower total global aquaculture production.”

Inequality in seafood supply rises: the supply to current net importers declines sharply and while domestic production gradually expands, it is unable to close the demand gap and causes prices to rise. Reduced access to imported feed ingredients increases production costs and further drives up prices.

Growth of farmed seafood supply in “late adopting” countries where aquaculture development is currently in the nascent stages, is delayed, interrupted, or reversed. Overall, diversity of seafood available in each country generally declines as production diversity is constrained by local environmental conditions and limited technology transfer among countries.

Photograph credit: Jaanus Jagomagi


Photograph credit: Jaanus Jagomagi

In lowand middle-income countries, reduced external pressure for improvements in environmental and food safety standards to comply with demand from export markets result in fewer regulatory spillovers to domestic- oriented production and larger negative environmental and public health externalities.

To meet domestic demand and bring down rising costs, countries put production growth first and lift environmental regulations along the supply chain, allowing industry to exceed local carrying capacity and push up against environmental boundaries.

Collectively, the world then pushes up against or exceeds planetary boundaries. Although small initiatives promoting locally produced, environmentally conscious seafood arise in some locations (e.g. “Slow Fish,” inspired by Slow Food), these systems are unsupported by economic policies and remain too niche to achieve any significant supply.

“In some places, rolling back environmental and animal health regulation results in disease outbreaks and biodiversity loss due to poor siting of farms in ecologically sensitive habitats. This increases risk of periodic seafood supply reductions and increased price volatility.”

In instances of disruptions from localized extreme events, regions are unable to source from foreign producers to fill production gaps without open trade policies. In other cases, protectionist trade policies limit some supply shocks and the spread of transboundary diseases by preventing the import of organisms that serve as vectors for transmission.

Overall, fluctuating supply and lack of governmental intervention to influence food safety and nutritional quality, together with reduced species diversity available on domestic markets and inadequate consumer awareness and education, mean that farmed fish play a limited role in contributing to nutrition and public health in many countries.

Food sovereignty

Countries throughout the world adopt sustainable local food production approaches focused on smallholder production. While some traditional production systems are highly productive, in general, global aquaculture production grows at a relatively slow rate – if at all – and total production is relatively low.

Without efficiency and scale in production, there are fewer investments in production and distribution technology. While low production, in combination with high trade barriers, results in higher prices, the food production systems that arise in each country tend to be in line with local cultural preferences and environmental contexts, resulting in moderate species diversity at local levels and high species diversity globally.

Throughout rural areas, fairly high seafood access exists for the large number of small-scale producers and their communities, but higher prices for seafood sold in urban markets reduce access for the urban poor.

Photograph credit: Alex Antoniadis.


Photograph credit: Alex Antoniadis.

Since countries pursue a sustainable development path, production accounts for environmental limits, thus reducing risk of environmental disruptions, but when producers do experience losses, regions cannot fill the gap from foreign suppliers due to trade barriers.

For those able to access farmed seafood, a variety of nutritious and culturally preferred species are available, albeit at a price. As a result, the sector contributes to nutritional diversity and quality in diets, and seafood is included in national dietary guidelines and is available to people at critical life stages, with the help of state subsidies or incentives, to state-run schools, hospitals, and elder care facilities.

Regulations on food quality and incentives to maintain high nutrient content ensure that nutritional quality of farmed fish equals or exceeds that of wild caught fish.

Blue internationalism

The world fully embraces the application of sustainable development principles, taking advantage of the benefits of globalized food systems while strengthening environmental governance to ensure the world does not exceed planetary boundaries.

Global competition and high levels of technology transfer lead to relatively high global inland and marine seafood production. Favoring production of seafood in line with local environmental contexts, this world leads to moderate global species diversity, with the local species diversity depending on the specific approach in a given country.

High global seafood production and low trade barriers enable low seafood prices, improving seafood access in urban areas and areas with transportation infrastructure connections and access to electricity for refrigeration. By accounting for environmental boundaries and diversifying production systems, this world reduces risks of environmental and disease disruptions to production.

When disruptions do occur, trade openness allows regions to source from other regions to meet seafood demands and efficient and cooperative global surveillance systems enable disease outbreaks to be quickly contained before they erupt into pandemics threatening the sector.

“The Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security are adopted by most States and ensure that nutrition information on farmed fish is available and State policies align with the Human Right to Food (FAO 2005).”

Regulations and fiscal incentives ensure that powerful food sector actors align their production, processing and marketing with dietary guidelines; they develop aquatic species strains with different nutrient “signatures” such that they can reach all sectors of the market with healthy food at affordable prices.


Despite the deep differences among the scenarios, there are elements of each of these scenarios in current production systems from around the world. Across the four scenarios, there is room for nutrition- sensitive aquaculture in each, but nutrition-sensitivity is not a given under any scenario.

As discussed above, some scenarios are more strongly associated with the enabling conditions for nutrition-sensitive aquaculture (adoption of prosustainability policies that emphasize achievement of the sustainable development goals and equity of access to healthy, nutritious food), while others (emphasis on macroeconomic growth with little high-level attention or effective commitment to environmental sustainability and health equity) would likely require targeted policies to promote nutrition-sensitive aquaculture.

These policies could include:

(i) initiatives that directly target behavior change and communication and other aspects of nutrition promotion (Ruel et al. 2018); and

(ii) conditional cash transfer programs and support for family/homestead food production (e.g., Bolsa Familia and Programa de Aquisic¸~ao de Alimentos in Brazil, Rocha 2009).

“The primary drivers of future aquaculture scenarios in the medium term identified here deal with macroeconomic factors that are uncertain in their evolution but highly influential.”

These drivers likely interact with other prominent drivers of aquaculture production, such as climate change (for further input on this topic please read the full version of the article, link at the end of this version).

Unlike globalization or sustainability policy, the mid-term direction related to climate change is fairly certain. Nevertheless, the scenarios which embrace a donut economics approach to economic development (Blue Internationalism and Food Sovereignty) bound the safe operating space for growth with a social floor and an environmental ceiling.

“As a result, these scenarios prioritize carbon emissions reductions to limit progression of global climate change, which would shift opportunities and risks for aquaculture within these scenarios.”

At the local scale, extreme weather events of droughts and floods are increasingly recognized as current and future challenges to aquatic farming, including in Malawi (Limuwa et al. 2018) and Thailand (Lebel et al. 2015).

Ultimately, climate change will influence the scale, type, and quality of aquaculture production heterogeneously around the world. How such impacts will affect goals for addressing nutrition-sensitive aquaculture is unknown but is no doubt critical for future research to classify and understand the role of aquaculture in food and nutrition security.

“As the global COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding, the full scope of damage to food systems in the longer term is unknown.”

Yet, it is already clear that portions of the aquaculture industry are suffering major setbacks, as some exports are being halted, workers are being laid off, food service segment demand has dramatically decreased, production units are incurring large losses (FAO 2020) and some countries are reconsidering their reliance on foreign seafood.

Such setbacks can be particularly long-lasting for a budding sector, with many young farms that potentially lack the capital to weather the storm and the political clout to secure sufficient recovery aid.

While it is unclear whether any of these events represents a momentary response or a lasting change, it is insightful to consider the presented scenarios and what the future of aquaculture may look like if nations refocus inward for food and nutrition security or if the crisis drives further consolidation of the sector.


As nations, investors, and development organizations look toward aquaculture to meet growing seafood demand, the macro policies, especially the degree of globalization and the economic growth strategy, will shape the form of aquaculture that takes hold.

As the world now appears to sit at a crossroads for the future of aquaculture and its role in contributing to global food and nutrition security, these scenarios can prompt discussion among researchers, policymakers, and advocacy groups about desirable futures for nutrition- sensitive aquaculture to help chart a course for how to get there.

This article is a summarized version developed by the editorial staff of Aquaculture Magazine, based on the original publication of “Scenarios for Global Aquaculture and its Role in Human Nutrition” by: Jessica A. Gephart, Christopher D. Golden, Frank Asche, Ben Belton, Cecile Brugere, Halley E. Froehlich, Jillian P. Fry, Benjamin S. Halpern, Christina C. Hicks, Robert C. Jones, Dane H. Klinger, David C. Little, Douglas J. McCauley, Shakuntala H. Thilsted, Max Troell & Edward H. Allison.
The original version of the article was published on July 2020 through the Reviews in Fisheries Science & Aquaculture of Francis & Taylor.
In order to access the full version, please visit: https://doi.org/10.1080/23308249.2020.1782342

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