|George Kent, “Aquaculture and Food Security,” in PACON, eds., Proceedings of the PACON Conference on Sustainable Aquaculture 95, 11-14 June 1995, Honolulu, Hawai'i, USA. Honolulu: Pacific Congress on Marine Science and Technology, 1995.
AQUACULTURE AND FOOD SECURITY
University of Hawaii
April 17, 1995
Food security can be defined as “secure access to enough food at all times.” Aquaculture can affect human food security by increasing income and thus enlarging the capacity to purchase food on the market. In this study, however, the primary concern is with the aquaculture product as food, not as a commodity of economic value to its producers and sellers. The major impact of aquaculture’s product on food security is its contribution to overall food supplies for the general population. Another impact that must be distinguished is aquaculture’s influence on the food security of the poor, those most vulnerable to malnutrition.
Aquaculture makes a large, positive contribution to the world’s food supply. With respect to fish food supplies for the poor in particular, however, aquaculture’s net effect is not so clear. Traditional extensive forms of aquaculture generally make a positive contribution. However, most modern intensive forms of aquaculture are directed toward upscale markets, and do not provide increased food supplies for the poor. Modern, intensive aquaculture operations sometimes even make the poor worse off.
Aquaculturists do not have any greater obligation to feed the poor than anyone else. However, there is a special obligation if the operation has significant negative nutritional (or environmental, economic, or other) impacts, perhaps by displacing more traditional operations. There is also a special obligation if public funding was obtained on the basis of a claim or implication that the project would improve the food security of the poor.
If aquaculture’s products are to be used to strengthen the food security of the poor, several guidelines should be considered:
1. Funding for aquaculture for the poor should be increased.
2. Aquaculture projects should do no harm to the food supplies of the poor.
3. Existing aquaculture activities for the poor should be strengthened.
4. The focus should be on low cost products favored by the poor.
5. Production should be for local consumers.
6. Community production should be encouraged.
Food security impacts should be monitored.
AQUACULTURE AND FOOD SECURITY
University of Hawaii
April 17, 1995
Often aquaculture is undertaken as a straightforward commercial enterprise, comparable to any other. At times, however, aquaculturists argue that their enterprises will make significant contributions to human food supplies, particularly for the poor. Often claims are made for public support on these grounds. It is useful, then, to examine aquaculture’s contribution to human food security. -
Food security can be defined as “secure access to enough food at all times.”1 Thus, food security is concerned with questions relating to the food supply. However, there is more to nutrition than food supply. Nutrition status depends not only on suitable food but also on good basic health services and, particularly for children, adequate care.2
At one time it was believed that most malnutrition was associated with inadequate protein supplies, but since the 1960s it has been recognized that malnutrition usually is associated with inadequate energy (calorie) supplies. Where energy intakes are adequate, usually protein intakes also are adequate. Where food supplies are inadequate, usually the best remedy is to improve the supply of low-cost complex carbohydrates, preferably the corn or rice or other traditional food staple in the region. We should not be under the illusion that it is important to get fish to the poor because they suffer from serious protein deficiencies. While increasing fish supplies for the poor will not be the primary remedy for malnutrition, nevertheless it can improve the food security of the poor by enhancing the overall abundance, quality, and variety of their food supplies.
Malnutrition generally results not from a lack of food in the community but from the skewed distribution of the food that is available. That skew results because some people are too poor or too powerless to make an adequate claim on the food that is available.
Aquaculture can affect human food security in several ways. One major impact results from generating income for the owners and employees of aquaculture enterprises. Increasing income increases food security by enlarging the capacity to purchase food on the market. Here, however, the primary concern here is with the aquaculture product as food, not as a commodity of economic value to its producers and sellers. The major impact of aquaculture’s food product on food security is its contribution to overall food supplies for the general population. Another impact that must be distinguished is aquaculture’s influence on the food security of the poor, those most vulnerable to malnutrition.3
CONTRIBUTION TO OVERALL FOOD SUPPLIES
Aquaculture’s contribution to world food supplies has been increasing rapidly in recent decades. This has been especially important in view of the weakening of marine fisheries. Aquaculture is helping to compensate for losses due to the deterioration of conventional capture fisheries. In 1989-91, average annual aquaculture production was over 15 million metric tons, more than 16 percent of total global fish production.
In recent years, aquaculture has made its most spectacular contribution in China. China’s fish production has been increasing steadily, to about a sixth of total world fish production in 1993. In that year, aquaculture accounted for about nine million tons, about 52 percent of China’s total fish production. Only a small share of that total has been exported. The export of prawns has been further limited by the outbreak of diseases in the culturing operations, especially in Zhejian province. Thus, aquaculture is making an enormous positive contribution to China’s food supply. Apparently the rapid growth of aquaculture is both a cause and a consequence of China’s rapid economic growth.4
The major impact of aquaculture on world food supplies is conveyed in the aggregate tonnage figures. However, in some cases assessing only the output of aquaculture projects can be misleading. Some intensive aquaculture operations use large amounts of low-cost protein sources, including fish, as feed to produce high value products. These operations are net consumers of protein. They may make good economic sense to their owners, but in nutritional terms they are highly inefficient. These operations actually reduce overall food supplies.
IMPACTS ON THE POOR
Aquaculture clearly makes a large, positive contribution to the world’s food supply. With respect to fish food supplies for the poor in particular, however, aquaculture’s net effect is not so clear. Traditional extensive forms of aquaculture generally make a positive contribution. Historically, aquaculture has been a major source of animal protein for the poor in many parts of the world, especially Asia. However, most modern intensive forms of aquaculture are directed toward upscale markets, and do not provide increased food supplies for the poor.
Modern, intensive aquaculture operations sometimes even make the poor worse oft’. In some cases fingerlings which previously had been consumed by the poor are fattened in aquaculture operations which cater to upscale markets. Coastal shrimp mariculture has displaced many traditional coastal fisheries, and has damaged or destroyed mangrove ecosystems which had served as breeding grounds for local fisheries serving local markets. Export-oriented aquaculture operations often divert resources away from production for local consumption. In general, any land, water, labor, or capital that is devoted to aquaculture for upscale markets has an associated opportunity cost in that those resources might have been used to help feed the local poor.
Some analysts argue that “the long term fisheries value of mangrove habitat is greater than its value for any other use, including coastal mariculture.”5 More important than the question of how much benefit is produced is the question of who gets the benefit. As Conner Bailey observes, one common result of coastal mariculture development “is that a complex ecosystem supporting multiple uses by a variety of users is being transformed into a greatly simplified system that becomes the private property of an individual entrepreneur.”6 The impact on the distribution of food is direct:
Fishermen and their customers also are affected as coastal ecosystems are disrupted to build shrimp ponds, resulting in declining catches of fish and shrimp. Because pond-grown shrimp are directed towards export markets, mariculture production does not serve to replace this decline in locally available food.7
It is a matter of particular concern that this often results from projects that are publicly funded. As Smith and Pestaño-Smith have pointed out, “Large-scale aquaculture enterprises frequently displace small-scale fishermen and aquaculturists through subsidized financing and institutional arrangements that favor the large-scale or corporate investor.”8
In India, the government of Orissa state started to lease out land to a large corporation to develop large scale industrial prawn breeding in Chilika Lake. Some 1500 traditional fishers in three villages were dispossessed. Under pressure from a vigorous “Save the Chilika Movement,” with participation by FIAN (an international nongovernmental organization working “for the human right to feed oneself’) the Orissa High Court finally closed down the project.9
Similar events have taken place in Honduras. The World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, and the European Community funded vigorous export-oriented shrimp mariculture, especially around the Gulf of Fonseca. Production boomed through the 1980s, generating high incomes and many jobs. However, there were many negative economic and social consequences as well, leading finally to intense conflicts among the different interest groups. Many local people, especially artisanal fishers, became worse off as a result of the shrimp mariculture efforts. One analyst concludes that in Honduras “the promotion of shrimp is accelerating social differentiation, diminishing access to common-property resources, expelling small producers from their land, and leading to greater poverty and social conflict.”10
Years ago a well-known aquaculturist told me that his work on the aquaculture of high-priced products was contributing to the alleviation of malnutrition in the world. He explained that when these products became cheap enough, everyone would be able to eat them. The world doesn’t work that way. Reducing the cost of luxury products usually means that more people in the richer half of the work will get to eat them. As prices come down, those consumers may get a better bargain or, perhaps more likely, the producers will enjoy higher profit rates. The products usually don’t trickle down to those who are needy. Most commercial operations aim to serve those who have the most spending power, not those who are most needy. Food systems are designed to maximize profitability, not nutrition status. It is naive to assume that simply putting more food out into the world will alleviate malnutrition. Malnutrition is not caused by inadequacy in the supply of food worldwide, but by the inadequate purchasing power of the poor. It should not be assumed that increasing aquaculture’s production volume would necessarily help to provide food for the poor. Unless it is specially targeted, increasing volume is likely to improve food security for the rich and the middle class, but not for the poor.
Funding agencies and the aquaculture research institutes they support should be sensitive to such considerations. If such an institute says its major mission is to strengthen aquaculture “with the ultimate goal of contributing to the alleviation of world hunger,” its agenda should go beyond breeding technologies and aquaculture feeds. It should not be diverted into developing products for upscale markets. Moreover, the mission of helping to alleviate hunger will not be accomplished if it is treated entirely as a technological question. The social aspects of aquaculture need to be studied as well.
Aquaculturists do not have any greater obligation to feed the poor than anyone else. There is no inherent need to justify commercial aquaculture obligations serving upscale markets. However, there is a special obligation if the operation has significant negative nutritional (or environmental, economic, or other) impacts, perhaps by displacing more traditional operations. There is also a special obligation if public funding was obtained on the basis of a claim or implication that the project would improve the food security of the poor.
Many aquaculture enterprises are oriented toward the upper and middle income classes. That is to be expected, since most entrepreneurs are motivated by the income-producing potential of aquaculture enterprises. It appears that the same pattern of serving middle and upper class markets is true of aquaculture projects that receive funding from national governments and international agencies such as the World Bank and the regional development banks.
Perhaps some aquaculture projects should be publicly supported because they help to alleviate the poverty of those who go into the business, or because they increase foreign exchange earnings. My interest here, however, is in the claim or the implicit assumption that aquaculture projects should be publicly funded because they improve the food security of the poor. While close attention has been given to the economic viability of aquaculture enterprises, and more recently to their environmental impacts, practically no attention has been given to their impacts on human food security. Yet it is precisely that impact that is often used as the basis for arguing that aquaculture should be supported by public funds. Unfortunately, many studies and projects ask for funding on the grounds that their efforts will improve the food security of the poor, but once they get the funds they show no further interest in the idea. Moreover, the funding agencies do not hold them accountable for these claims.
Aquaculture makes a substantial positive contribution to food security in general, but that is different from contributing to the food security of the poor in particular. Both the profit and the protein can bypass the poor. The cases of India and Honduras demonstrate that such projects can actually hurt them.
AQUACULTURE FOR THE POOR
If aquaculture’s products are to be used to strengthen the food security of the poor, it is not enough to promote the development of low-cost products. Consider, for example, the way in which “catfish has made the leap from poor folks’ food to haute cuisine.”11 In the absence of special measures, economic, social, and political forces will conspire to assure that the benefits gravitate toward those who are already well off.
If aquaculture is to serve the poor, several guidelines should be considered:
1. Increase funding for aquaculture for the poor. A larger share of the funding available to support aquaculture activities (or fisheries activities, or development activities) should be specifically earmarked to activities designed to meet the needs of the poor. This means more support should be given to extensive, traditional, inland, and small-scale aquaculture operations.
2. Do no harm. Even if they are not designed specifically to serve the poor, aquaculture projects should do no harm to the food supply, income, or environment of the poor. This includes protecting aquaculture activities that already serve the poor effectively. To assure that harm to the poor is minimized and benefits are maximized, the local poor should be given greater voice in the design and selection of aquaculture projects.
3. Strengthen existing aquaculture for the poor. Rather than designing entirely new projects, there may be greater benefit from supporting what already works. Consider strengthening the property rights of the poor in existing operations, whether coastal or inland, or improving the marketing infrastructure in poor areas, or improving extension services.
4. Produce low cost products favored by the poor. Low cost is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition, to assure that the product will be consumed by the poor.
5. Produce for local consumers. Products destined for export, or even for distant cities, are not likely to be consumed by the poor. Focus on products likely to be consumed by the local poor.
6. Encourage community production. While much of commercial aquaculture is based on privately-owned operations, community-based production in local ponds and lakes can be effective in reaching the poor. Promoting production in open-access waterways can be useful as well. School fish ponds can have high educational as well as nutritional value.
7. Monitor food security and related impacts. It should not be assumed that just because an aquaculture project is in a poor area and produces low cost products the poor will in fact be the ones who get to consume the product. Test the assumption with field research. In general, assess aquaculture projects not only in terms of their economic and environmental impacts but also in terms of their nutritional impacts.
Aquaculture researchers give a great deal of attention to the nutrition of aquatic animals, but practically none to human nutrition. The framework of analysis should be expanded so that the ecological web under study goes beyond the pond and includes the human consumers and the society in which they are embedded.
Measures like these are important in relation to all aquaculture, but they are particularly important in relation to publicly funded operations. Public agencies at the national and international levels should be more attentive to the well-being of the poor in whose name they justify so much of their activity.
1 Simon Maxwell and Timothy R. Frankenberger, Household Food Security: Concepts, Indicators, Measurements, A Technical Review (New York: United Nation’s Children’s Fund and International Fund for Agricultural Development, 1992).
2 United Nations Children’s Fund, Food, Health and Care (New York: UNICEF, 1993).
3 I examine the role of fisheries generally (not just aquaculture) in George Kent, Fish, Food, and Hunger: The Potential of Fisheries for Alleviating Malnutrition (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1987).
4 Leith Duncan, “China: Where the World is Headed,” Samudra, No. 10 & 11 (December 1994), pp. 6-10.
5 P. R. Burbridge, as described in Conner Bailey, “The Social Consequences of Tropical Shrimp Mariculture Development,” Ocean & Shoreline Management, Vol. 11(1988), pp. 31-44.
6 Bailey “The Social Consequences. . . ,“ p. 36.
7 Bailey, “The Social Consequences. . . ,“ p. 39.
8 I. Smith and R. Pestaño-Smith, “Social Feasibility of Coastal Aquaculture,” ICLARM Newsletter, Vol. 8 (1985), p. 7, cited in Bailey, “The Social Consequences ...,“ p. 36.
9 ”Orissa, India: Prawn Production Threatens Fishermen’s Rights,” FIAN International Newsletter, No. 56 (April/May 1993), p. 3; “Orissa High Court Stops Tata’s Shrimp Project in Lake Chilika, India,” Hungry for What is Right (FIAN Magazine), No. 2 (April 1994), p. 9. FIAN stands for Foodflrst International Action Network.
10 Susan C. Stonich, “Producing Food for Export: Environmental Quality and Social Justice Implications of Shrimp Mariculture in Honduras,” in Barbara Rose Johnston, ed., Who Pays the Price? The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994), pp. 110-120.
11 Berkeley Rice, “A Lowly Fish Goes Upscale,” New York Times Magazine, December 4, 1988, pp. 59-68.