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As any investor knows, a diverse portfolio is an important risk mitigation strategy, offsetting potential losses from one investment with the returns from another. The same is true when it comes to food security.
Countries investing in the full range of accessible and affordable foods can therefore rely on certain sub-sectors to provide vital nutrition when others are affected by a climate shock or conflict, minimising the kind of disruption, volatility, and inflation currently playing out.
Blue food — foods derived from aquatic animals, plants and algae caught or cultivated in freshwater and marine environments — are a key part of many diets and have a potentially important role to play in a transition towards more healthy and sustainable ways of eating.
Yet, for most countries, aquatic foods remain something of a blind spot and have been remarkably absent in discussions about how to rapidly transform and de-risk our food systems.
This needs to change because blue foods have much to offer.
We are neglecting a diverse food source with low environmental footprint
For one, they are immensely diverse. Globally, we catch, farm and consume more than 2,500 species of fish, shellfish and aquatic plants.
With growing stress on existing food systems from climate change, environmental harm and rising populations, this diversity represents significant potential for finding culturally acceptable blue foods with high nutritional and economic value yet relatively low environmental impact.
It can thus alleviate pressure on land-based production systems while offering lower-emission, often nutrient-dense alternatives to many terrestrial — and particularly red and processed — meats.
The returns on offer from blue foods vary depending on the context. By compiling and assessing extensive research conducted within the Blue Food Assessment, a new paper identifies four valuable roles that fish and other aquatic animal-sourced foods can play as part of a diverse and healthy nutrition portfolio.
Firstly, blue foods with relatively low environmental footprints that can be managed sustainably could be leveraged to reduce the climate impact of land-based agri-food systems while simultaneously enhancing the resilience of food provision.
Farmed bivalves like oysters and mussels, for example, produce not only low levels of emissions but also require limited freshwater and land while providing 76 times more vitamin B12 and five times more iron than chicken.
Thus, investing in the growth of unfed aquaculture for bivalves and seaweeds can increase the supply of high-value nutrition without jeopardising climate goals or increasing climate vulnerability.
Ocean food sources can fill a nutrient gap, too
Secondly, blue foods can also reduce human exposure to nutrient deficiencies, especially B12 and omega-3, which are lacking in many global diets.
In some less developed settings, deficiencies stem from undernutrition, and in these settings, relatively small amounts of nutritionally dense blue foods can alleviate the detrimental effects of low B12 linked to cognitive function.
This is particularly important in developing coastal regions and Small Island Developing States, where shifts away from traditional diets have been associated with increases in diet-related illnesses.
But blue foods can also fill a nutrient gap left by many modern diets. In many developed countries, over-consumption of red, and particularly processed meats, has led to a rise in non-communicable diseases.
A third and equally important nutritional role of blue foods is that they can offer a healthy protein alternative to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The high nutrient content of many fish and shellfish also means that people could eat smaller quantities yet still meet their nutritional needs.
Billions depend on blue foods, but it might not be for everyone
Finally, blue foods have an integral role to play in upholding the cultures, diets, economies and livelihoods of billions of people worldwide.
The sector already provides livelihoods for some 600 million people, including those in coastal communities and island nations, for whom there are few viable and accessible alternatives across food systems.
Some three billion people get vital nutrients and 205 types of animal protein from fish, seafood and aquatic plants.
This contribution to food systems must both be safeguarded and sustainably scaled up, with the potential to avert up to 166 million cases of micronutrient deficiency.
Fishing and aquaculture are not without social or environmental impact, and some aquatic stocks have proven difficult to manage sustainably under current market pressures.
Our analysis suggests that in some contexts, existing cultural preferences may mean that “leap-frogging” to largely plant-based diets may therefore be a more environmentally and socially desirable option.
A broader food portfolio for more sustainable diets
Blue foods are not, therefore, a panacea, but they have a lot to offer and deserve a place at the table when policymakers around the world discuss national food portfolios and identify salient ways to achieve healthy and sustainable diets for all.
Sustainability certification schemes, inclusive dietary guidelines, and other initiatives to change food consumption behaviour can all contribute to transitioning to more sustainable diets by reinforcing the role of blue foods in diets around the world.
Investing in the diversity offered by blue foods is an investment in food system resilience, which in turn can bring a greater ability to cope with the certain uncertainties of tomorrow’s food production and trade.
In turbulent times, a broader food portfolio can help steer us towards calmer waters.
_Beatrice Crona is co-chair of the Blue Food Assessment, professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, and Executive Director of the Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere Program at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.
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