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Cooked Vannemai Shrimp with salad/slaw and crunchy top.

Seafood consumption action is required

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By: The Fishmonger*

In a recent study published by Stanford University, it highlighted that humanity is likely to consume more fish and shellfish in the coming decades and that preparing for that future requires better data on the types of fish that people eat, sustainable expansion of aquaculture and an improved understanding of the local context for the “food on our plate”.

The study’s authors estimate global fish consumption by mid-century will increase by nearly 80 percent and the total weight of the world’s fish harvest as it comes from the water – shells, guts, bones, and all – may nearly double. A confluence of factors, including population growth and local changes in affordability, trade and culture is behind the projected increases.

While rising incomes have helped to fuel demand for meat in recent decades, fish and shellfish, which researchers have dubbed “blue foods”, do not fit quite as neatly into the conventional economic model of income-driven demand for animal products.

Open Omelette with Smoked Salmon, spinach and cheese

Open Omelette with Smoked Salmon, spinach and cheese

Lead study author Rosamond Naylor, the William Wrigley Professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University, is reported as saying “A main result of the paper is that wealth and blue food consumption are not tightly coupled. You do not see people eating more fish overall as they get richer, but the types of fish they eat may change. At low incomes, people consume more blue foods if they are affordable. At high incomes, people eat fish if they have some sort of preference for it: health, or sustainability or just taste.”

“One likely explanation for the disconnect is that ‘fish’ is such a vast category, encompassing thousands of species caught or farmed across the planet’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and backyard ponds, or cultivated in land-based tanks and raceways. And the things that shape fish consumption patterns – food traditions, nutritional knowledge, the availability of plant-based meat substitutes and more they vary from place to place and evolve over time. We have a tremendous opportunity to bring species to market that are both environmentally sustainable and nutritious.”

Co-lead author Shakuntala Thilsted, a nutrition and public health expert with the Malaysia-based international research organization WorldFish and the 2021 World Food Prize Laureate reportedly said, “The new results emphasize the need for local, context-specific food and nutrition security policies. The environmental and health impacts of the projected rise in fish consumption will depend on the types and methods of aquaculture that expand to meet new demand – and on how the mix of proteins on our plate changes.”

This move to seafood is not the first-time people’s preferences for animal products have changed: poultry has already become a “major substitute for beef in global diets”, the authors noted. While consumption per capita of beef has declined since the 1960s, that of seafood has more than doubled and that of poultry has increased five-fold.

“However, bringing species to market, is only half the battle. Bivalves such as oysters, clams and scallops are clearly sustainable seafood options that can contribute to shoreline protection and cleaner water – but, as the report states that it remains to be seen whether people’s tastes will change enough to boost demand for these creatures as food relative to other types of seafood and meat.”

On issues with data, it was noted that records of the food that people actually eat, rather than the amount of food that is produced or available for purchase, are scant. The authors found that national surveys seeking to estimate the current consumption of blue foods tend to produce conflicting results.

They often ignore fish eaten outside the home – leaving a particularly gaping hole in understanding the role of urbanization in driving blue food demand – and fail to capture prices and types of fish consumed.

To overcome the lack of data, the researchers analyzed previously published research and food supply data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for seventy-two countries that together account for 80 percent of all blue food consumption worldwide.

They also analyzed regional demand for the largest consuming nations within each continent and combed through the data for four specific countries: China, India, Nigeria, and Chile, in more detail to investigate the roles of income, trade geography, culture, and preferences in “blue food” demand.

The degree to which oceans and freshwater systems will be able to keep up with the predicted changes in demand will be intricately linked to global climate change, which the authors say is likely to drive up seafood prices and disproportionately impact the poor.

Port Arlington Mussels - steamed with leak, spinach, garlic and chilli.

Port Arlington Mussels – steamed with leak, spinach, garlic and chilli.

The need to bolster preparedness has been laid bare by the disruption of COVID-19 pandemic, which saw widespread closures of ports and seafood processing facilities throughout Asia and, early in 2020, a near-total collapse of the restaurant market for farmed oysters and other mollusks.

According to the authors “One crucial step will be gathering better data on household consumption and prices of not only fresh fish but also dried, salted, or otherwise processed fish that allows for storage and long-distance trading. Much improved data is urgently needed to ameliorate the impacts of shocks, including pandemics and climate change, on vulnerable populations. We need consistent surveys across countries. Without fully understanding the demand side of the puzzle, policy recommendations will be based on faulty assumptions about which blue food species consumers already prefer.”

“In Norway, according to the IMARC Group, the market is primarily driven by the increasing consumption of seafood due to rising awareness regarding the various health benefits associated with it. This, coupled with the inflating disposable income levels and the shifting dietary preferences of individuals, is significantly contributing to market growth.”

Furthermore, the availability of the ideal climatic conditions for aquaculture production in the country is propelling market growth. Other factors, including the increasing support by the government of Norway to promote aquaculture and the rising expenditure on research and development (R&D) activities, are anticipated to contribute to market growth further across the country.

The Norwegian aquaculture market reached 1.8 million tons in 2022. Looking forward, there is expectation that the market will reach 2.5 million tons by 2028, exhibiting a growth rate (CAGR) of 5.7% during 2023-2028.

As of 2021, there were approximately 1.66 million metric tons of fish for consumption sold. In that year, the average volume of fish and fish products consumed in the country amounted to 19.3 kilograms per capita. That figure is currently just below the world average but it is growing and the government seems to be backing the industry.

“In Australia, we know the locals love their red meat and poultry, but seafood is fast catching up in terms of popularity and has always been an important part of Australian culture and diet. About 334 kt of seafood was consumed in Australia in 2019-2020, which increased to 356 kt in 2020-21 according to ABARES.”

This equates to about 13 kg per person per annum – well below the world average and highlights why Australia suffers from so many chronic diseases and yet has no program for increasing seafood consumption. In the hearts, minds and stomachs of Australian consumers, seafood slots in at number four, behind beef, pork, and poultry but higher than sheep or lamb.

According to a 2019 survey, frequent eaters (who eat seafood at least once a week) accounted for 33% of consumers, but this group consumed 77% of the total seafood available.

The data shows that seafood choice among consumers is not purely economic. A survey of more than 2,000 adult grocery buyers in 2019 found that price was important to consumers but was not the key driver of seafood consumption.

Baked Barramundi on rice and herbs.

Baked Barramundi on rice and herbs.

Consumers reported that freshness and food safety were more important than price, but that price was more important than quality (whether it was fresh or frozen) and presentation.

A few years ago, in Frontiers for Nutrition, a scientific study, Sociodemographic Variation in Consumption Patterns of Sustainable and Nutritious Seafood in Australia, concluded that increasing seafood consumption to meet dietary recommendations is an essential element of improving health outcomes, in particular for lower socioeconomic groups and for people who currently consume little or no seafood.

“There are opportunities to increase intakes by varying current seafood consumption patterns to maximize nutritional outcomes and minimize ecological impacts. Initiatives to increase awareness of the nutritional variation and trade-offs in sustainability of different seafood types are also required.”

These initiatives must actively promote the health and environmental benefits of seafood at the population level, and should encourage consumption of highly nutritious, low resource intensive, types of seafood.

Here are some of the important and relevant comments from that report:

✓ Improving the availability of healthier seafood options and increasing the exposure of children to seafood early and regularly while their food preferences are being established is one way to encourage consumption. This is also important for adults, as increasing people’s confidence and establishing a habit of purchasing and preparing seafood on a regular basis are important strategies to increase consumption.

✓ Initiatives to promote seafood consumption should also consider the nutritional requirements of specific population groups and promote seafood species based on their nutritional profile, quality, acceptability, affordability, and availability. For example, affordability might be a barrier to consumption in lower socioeconomic groups, therefore promoting cheaper options with high nutritional value, such as small pelagic might be a mutually beneficial strategy.

“The findings of this research would suggest there may be less resistance to this strategy in lower socioeconomic groups, as small pelagic account for a greater proportion of total consumption in this group than others. Previous experience with purchasing and preparing fish is a vital component of consumers’ behavior and their intention to eat fish.”

✓ Another sub-group of the population that requires consideration are seniors, as they are at greater nutritional risk than the general population. While this research demonstrated that the percentage of seniors consuming seafood was higher than other groups, the amount consumed was lower. Reasons for lower consumption may include a reduced, appetite and affordability of seafood, as well as other factors that place them at nutritional risk more generally, such as decreases in sensations of taste and smell and poor dental health.

However, diet may play an important part in promoting health, delaying the time to onset, and slowing the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease–for which specific dietary recommendation is regular consumption of oily fish. Strategies around purchasing and preparing seafood are important predictors of consumers’ behavior and their intention to eat fish and should form part of any nutrition interventions around seafood.

Interestingly, it was older Australians, and men, who ate more underutilized and pelagic, which tend to be oiler species, so there may be opportunities to promote the consumption of a broader range of less popular seafood species for people in their senior years.

“Despite this, little has been done! Is it the same in your country? Quite often, politicians and bureaucrats pay lip service to seafood and its importance, but it is about time we got them to start supporting better health outcomes from increased seafood consumption.”

The Fishmonger often feels that instead of having Ministers for Fisheries and Aquaculture, we have Ministers AGAINST Fisheries and Aquaculture. Happy to hear your views as usual.

References and sources consulted by the author on the elaboration of this article are available under previous request to our editorial staff.

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