Designing a sustainable future for aquaculture, the world’s fastest growing food sector- A One Health approach.

3 August 2020

oysters grown on ropes underwater

‘Seafood’ is one of the fastest growing and highly traded food markets. Up to now, most has come from wild sources, caught in global freshwaters and oceans. But things are changing and today half of all seafood consumed comes from farmed sources (aquaculture), that includes fish, shrimp, shellfish, and seaweed, to satisfy an increasing demand of the global population. In 2020 seafood consumption reached an all-time high with an average of 20kg consumed annually by every person on the planet.

With the global capture fishery not expected to grow significantly over the next few decades, enhanced production from aquaculture is arguably the only way of supplying an increasing global demand for seafood. Doubling in the size of the sector by 2050 is anticipated as the global human population approaches 10 billion people.

Aquaculture (and the food it produces) has played a major role in lifting millions of people out of poverty in many low- and middle-income nations, but a range of sustainability issues have been highlighted. These include the requirement for wild-caught fish meal and fish oil to produce feeds for parts of the industry, environmental degradation, over-use of antibiotics, release of disease agents, poor labour practices and gender inequality. Negative societal impressions created by such examples (and applied to the industry as a whole) mask the potentially significant benefits of increased farming of cold-blooded (and thus more efficient) animals, many of which do not require feeding, in a smaller footprint than may be required for other forms of food production.

Analysis of the complex interaction of human, environmental and animal health (so-called ‘One Health’) parameters by a diverse team of scientists, economists, sociologists and policy specialists has been led by the Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures (a joint initiative between Cefas and the University of Exeter). The analysis identified a set of success metrics that are proposed for inclusion into national aquaculture strategies across the globe to improve sustainability as the industry expands. The paper, published today in the journal Nature Food, which applies the ‘One Health’ approach to a food sector like aquaculture, is a first – recognising that societal buy-in, equity of access to the food produced, and environmental protection must be adequately addressed as the industry expands over coming decades.

Lead author, Professor Grant Stentiford from Cefas said:

This is an important paper from my perspective – acknowledging that aquaculture is set to deliver most of our seafood by 2050, but also that sustainability must be designed-in at every level and, that the One Health approach offers a tool for governments to consider how and where policy is designed and evidenced. I hope it will become a blueprint for how government and industry interact on these issues in the future. Most importantly, it considers aquaculture’s evolution from a subject studied by specialists to an important food sector – requiring now a much broader interaction with policy and society than arguably has occurred in the past.”

Senior co-author, Professor Charles Tyler from the University of Exeter said:

The paper results from extensive interaction between a wide range of academic experts in aquaculture, health, environmental and social sciences, economists, industry stakeholders and policy groups to identify how future aquaculture might best be developed to enable the industry to expand in the most sustainable manner. In a world where pressure on our environment is increasing, better food system design is critical, and aquaculture has a big part to play in that. We hope that the viewpoint offered here gains wide acceptance and helps to secure further development of aquaculture in its most environmentally sustainable form(s) for societal benefit globally. It expresses key tenets of the Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures (SAF) – a partnership between Cefas and the University of Exeter in seeking to develop collaboration across academia, governments and industry, both nationally and internationally, for advancing aquatic animal health, food safety, and protection of the aquatic environment relating to aquaculture.”

Cefas Interim CEO Tim Green said:

“Cefas has a long-history of providing advice to government over the sustainable use of aquatic resources to provide food from water. Given the rise in the predominance of aquaculture as a principle source of protein in our diets, this paper provides a timely intervention. It outlines a simple framework that will help governments to support the sustainable development of aquaculture within their own national jurisdictions and for the first time, ensure that due attention is given to the environmental and societal aspects of its design.”