The ocean's role in feeding people worldwide
New EU-funded research shows that marine aquaculture (mariculture) may play a key role in human consumption in the years to come. The findings of the SAMI ('Synthesis of aquaculture and marine ecosystems interactions') project, published in the journal BioScience, indicate that changes will be needed to ease our dependence on terrestrial agriculture and other external feed subsidies. SAMI received almost EUR 164 000 under the 'Research for policy support' Cross-cutting activity of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
According to UN estimates, the world population will grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. The question is how can we increase food production to meet the growing demands of the growing population? Studies show that lack of available water and land resources are playing havoc with the agriculture sector, and fisheries landings worldwide have been shrinking for the last two decades.
The SAMI study investigated how mariculture, which is the food-producing sector least dependent on freshwater availability, can support human consumption. Current statistics show that marine food contributes only 2% to the human food supply despite the fact that magnitude-wise, terrestrial and marine primary productions are more or less on an even scale.
The project partners examined the prospects for mariculture becoming a force to be reckoned with, particularly in terms of meeting growing human food demands. The consortium, led by the University of Southern Denmark, also assessed the challenges and obstacles that mariculture must surpass.
The SAMI researchers noted that mariculture is probably the ace in our sleeve, despite the potential recovery researchers see from conservation measures and a shift in consumption patterns.
Mariculture production has increased by up to 10 times since the late 1970s, and experts believe it will exceed fisheries catches by 2030. However, the study's authors contend that 'its continued growth will depend on adapting current techniques so that the food needed to feed marine animals is itself derived from marine aquaculture, rather than harvested from the wild or derived from agriculture'.
It is not an impossible goal, the SAMI team said. Cultivating more animals low on the food chain would make this a reality. Novel technology would also contribute to the objective; mariculture operations would be expanded into more exposed, offshore locations, according to the researchers. While the potential for environmental impacts to materialise exists, these impacts are modest when compared with those generated by food production on land.
Mariculture has the potential to help correct these problems and produce some positive effects for the environment.
'Promoting the growth of mariculture is the responsibility of all of society. Society must therefore be prepared to face the major social changes that will be required to adapt to the forthcoming major evolution in food production: transferring the production of animal protein from land to the ocean,' the authors wrote.
'In parallel, actions to restore declining fisheries yields should be adopted if we are to reap the benefits bestowed by the harvesting of wild stocks. These changes cannot be left to market self-regulation, which is flawed by hidden subsidies such as the costs of water use to agriculture and the costs of agriculture’s adverse effects on the environment; instead, such changes depend on social and political leadership, informed by the best available independent scientific knowledge and prospective analyses.'
Ultimately, oceans should 'become the next revolution in human food provision', the researchers underlined.
SAMI partners are from Denmark, Greece, Spain and the UK.