From farm to fork: the challenges that fish farming faces as a responsible supplier of global food

“World production, total consumption, food demand and per capita food consumption will increase over the next three decades; however, the rate of these increases will slow over time. World capture production is projected to stagnate, while world aquaculture production is projected to increase, albeit at a slower rate than in the past".

With a view to predicting future fisheries and fish production, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) commissioned several studies. Based on economic models of demand, trade and the supply of fish in main markets, these studies were helpful in providing an analysis of plausible trends in production, consumption and trade. The above statements of trends in production and consumption of aquatic food for the period up to 2030 emerged from the said analyses. It was also suggested that in developed countries consumption patterns will reflect demand for, and imports of, highcost/high-value species, whilst in the developing countries, trade flows will reflect the exportation of high-cost/high-value species and the importation of low-cost/low-value species. Let’s look at the aquaculture sector, which is the fastest growing food producing sector in the world, its contribution, future potential, opportunities and challenges as a responsible supplier of global food.


The world population is on the increase, as is the demand for aquatic food products. Production from capture fisheries at a global level is levelling off and most of the main fishing areas have reached their maximum potential. Global fish supply could be increased through reduction of discards and better use of by-catch for human consumption, e.g., use of at least part of the catch going for reduction to fish meal and fish oils. Better management of fishery resources and enhanced efforts to protect fishery resources from accelerating environmental degradation may well contribute to sustained, if not enhanced, fish supplies in the medium- to long-term.

Aquaculture appears to have stronger potential to meet the increasing demands for aquatic products in most regions of the world. Potential contributions from aquaculture to local food security and livelihoods can be highly significant, especially in many remote and resource-poor rural areas. The challenge is to develop approaches to increase the contribution of aquaculture, which are realistic and achievable, within the context of current social, economic, environmental and political circumstances.

Such approaches should not focus only on increasing production; they should also focus on producing a product that is affordable, acceptable and accessible to all sectors of society.

Global aquaculture production and trends

Aquaculture is the fastest growing food-producing sector in the world. A great proportion (over 90%) of this production comes from the developing world.

In contrast to terrestrial farming systems, where the bulk of global production is based on a limited number of animal and plant species, the aquaculture sector comprises of over 200 different species. This large number of species cultivated reflects the diversity of the sector, particularly the wide variety of candidate species cultivated and different production systems used.

Currently all major aquaculture producing countries are in Asia. Six Asian countries (China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Bangladesh and Thailand) contributed 83.3% to the global production in the year 2002.

The main species groups reared in fresh water are finfish while high value crustaceans and finfish predominate in brackish water, as molluscs and aquatic plants do in marine waters. Of these three environments, freshwater aquaculture could be considered as the most important in terms of contributing to achieving food security.

Marine aquaculture, particularly of sea weeds and molluscs, also contributes to food security and poverty alleviation, as most of its products are produced within small to medium scale operations. Albeit brackish water shrimp culture is generally aimed at producing a high value export commodity, coastal shrimp culture also plays an important role in rural livelihoods and food security.

Fish, human health and nutrition

Fish is an important part of the diet for a large proportion of the people living in the developing world. Many types and forms of fish and aquatic products are available at affordable prices in developing countries.

Economic affordability is a key factor as to why aquaculture is making an essential contribution to human health in the developing world.

More ‘food fish’ is consumed globally on a per capita basis than any other type of meat or animal protein.

In terms of animal protein supply, food fish represented 16.5% of total supply in 1997 (total global animal protein supply was reported as 27.1 g daily per capita in 1997), followed by pig meat (14.7%), beef and veal (13.6%), and poultry meat (12.5%). It is interesting to note that farmed aquatic meat production in China currently ranks second to pig meat; per capita availability of food fish in China increasing from 6.3 kg in 1984 to 25.5 kg in 1998.

The main reason for the high demand for staple food fish within most developing countries is their greater affordability to the poorer segments of the community. At present food fish represents the primary source of animal protein (contributing more than 25% of the total animal protein supply) for about 1 billion people within 58 countries worldwide, including many developing countries and LIFDCs (value excludes China).

In the diets of many countries, fish contributes more than or close to 50% of total animal proteins (e.g. Gambia, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Guinea, Bangladesh, the Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Philippines). The International Conference on Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security, held in Kyoto in 1995, recognized that aquatic products contribute meaningfully to the maintenance of good nutrition.

Fish are important sources for many nutrients, including protein of very high quality, retinol (Vitamin A), vitamin D, vitamin E, iodine, selenium.

Evidence is increasing that the consumption of fish enhances brain development and learning in children, protects vision and eye health, and offers protection from cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The fats and fatty acids in fish, particularly the long chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFA), are highly beneficial and difficult to obtain from other food sources.

Increasing the worldwide availability of good quality animal products is necessary if the per capita supplies are to keep pace with the increase in demand.

Aquaculture has an important role to play in this effort to fulfil the demand for animal products. Despite a lack of quantitative information concerning the role of rural aquaculture in achieving food security, there are undoubtedly benefits related to fish consumption; a) fish have a highly desirable nutrient profile, b) fish is an excellent source of high quality animal protein and with variable amounts of dietary energy, c) fatty fish, in particular, are an extremely rich source of omega-3 PUFAs, fat soluble vitamins (A, D and E) and water soluble vitamins (B complex), and d) fish is an important source of minerals (calcium, phosphorus, iron, iodine and selenium).

Fish, food security and rural development

Hunger and malnutrition remain amongst the most devastating problems facing the world’s poor. A considerable portion of the global population is currently suffering from one or more forms of nutrient deficiency. This remains a continuing travesty of the recognized fundamental human right to adequate food and nutrition, and freedom from hunger and malnutrition, particularly in a world that has both the resources and knowledge to end this catastrophe.

Latest estimates from FAO’s Report on the State of Food Insecurity 2002 indicate that 799 million people in the developing countries (840 million worldwide) regularly go to bed hungry. This is only about 20 million people less than the benchmark figure set eight years ago by the World Food Summit and is far short of the pace needed to reduce the number of hungry people by half by 2015. Of the 11 million children under the age of five who die each year, more than half (6 million) die of malnutrition and hunger-related causes. The challenge is to rapidly accelerate the pace by which hunger and malnutrition are eliminated. This goal can be accomplished by improving access to food by the poorest and nutritionally most vulnerable population groups and individuals.

This needs to be done in a manner that is socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable. This requires a dual approach whereby increased production and productivity gains are combined with improvements in the use and management of natural resources while also ensuring a more equitable access to food and other resources by the poor.

The objective of rural development is to facilitate a sustainable rural economy and to secure improvements in the welfare of rural populations.

The opportunities for the integration of fish farming into rural development are characterized by diverse aquatic resources and a wide range of stakeholders with diverse livelihoods. Objectives may further range from food production, income generation, and wild stock enhancement to recreation (ornamental fish or sport). The scale may be intensive commercial or subsistence management within developed and lessdeveloped economies.

The aquaculture sector provides worldwide employment to millions of people. Total employment in the aquaculture sector is highest in China where almost 4 million people are employed full-time in aquaculture production, and the annual growth rate for aquaculture employment rate is reported as 6%.

In many countries the average market prices of fish are lower than those of other animal products such as chicken, pork and red meat. Especially in Asia the low prices of aquaculture commodities such as carps and tilapias make fish highly accessible to even the poorest segments of the population.

Studies have shown that practicing aquaculture is economically feasible under many different circumstances.

Many types of low-cost, low-risk, simple, aquaculture technologies have emerged in recent years. Comparative studies between rice, ricefish and fish farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa demonstrated that farmers investing in aquaculture increased their household incomes considerably with only minor investments. In Europe, USA, China and other Asian countries the increases in production and the number of people active in aquaculture over the last decade have shown that aquaculture production systems ranging from extensive to highly intensive can be economically feasible.

Aquaculture and foreign exchange

International trade in seafood is a multi-billion dollar sector, with global volumes expanding from around $7 billion in 1976, to $55.3 billion in 2000.

Developing countries dominate seafood exports, contributing over 50% to the internationally traded seafood, with developed countries accounting for 80% or more of the imports, and Asia supplying 50% of all seafood exports. Asia produced 80% of the world’s farmed shrimp in 2000. Trade in live food fish, especially reef species, an increasing volume of which is from farms, is concentrated in Asia and is virtually a one-way flow from Oceania, Southeast Asia and South Asia to mainly China. The foreign exchange earned through international trading of aquaculture products is a considerable contribution to many national economies.

Major issues and challenges

Aquaculture is an income generating activity.

However, rapid sector growth has, in some instances, outstripped planning and regulatory activities. As a result, many areas have seen a regulatory rebound, with disproportionate requirements as resource use conflicts have occurred, resource scarcities have become more constraining and demand for product quality and safety has increased significantly.

Increasingly, some markets will consider additional product attributes, like environmental and social impacts of production. In some regions, aquaculture faces a considerable problem with public perception.

In some cases, aquaculture development has failed to keep up with, or meet, many environmental and socio-economic issues and expectations. Future aquaculture development needs to produce a product which is not only acceptable to public and consumers in terms of price, quality, and safety, but also in terms of environmental cost.

Although it has been said that aquaculture has a significant potential for improving food security and alleviating poverty, the role of aquaculture in food security has been a major concern of the sector for many years. From the point of view of production, it has been in the increase for many years, although at a reducing rate.

Overall, the driving force behind the relative increase in production and decline in value appears to be declining prices for luxury and commodity products as markets are becoming saturated and competition is increasing.

Maintaining environmental sustainability

Certain forms of aquaculture have a bad reputation.

The argument mainly comes from the use of feed and seed resources, disease control and chemical and veterinary drug use, accumulation of environmental contaminants, escapees and point source contamination of wild resources, negative or low net energy conversion during farming of top carnivores, mangrove clearance and land degradation, etc. Some of the arguments are true and worthy of considering but the quantum to which the issues are highlighted is certainly biased.

Traditional or extensive aquaculture, which is a low-tech, low-input aquaculture practice invented by the Chinese some 3000 years ago, is still in practice, producing large volumes of fish feeding low in the food chain.

Over 80% of the fish produced by aquaculture are herbivorous or omnivorous, mostly produced in low-intensity systems for local consumption. They, undoubtedly support livelihoods of people, provide food, alleviate rural poverty and improve health among less fortunate communities.

However modern-day aquaculture, mainly the production of high value carnivorous fish or shellfish destined to import markets is a different kettle of fish altogether. This sector uses a considerable quantity of natural resources and also produces a considerable quantity of effluent and waste. The sector’s sustainability and environmental acceptability has been increased significantly over the past decade through research involving development of technically specialised conditions.

However, the environmental, social and economic landscape within which aquaculture has performed well up to now is changing. In particular, competition will increase as barriers to trade decline through the process of economic globalization. In addition, the negative environmental and social impacts of aquaculture that occur in some situations will increase public scrutiny and criticism that could well alter the policies that have so far fostered growth. The trend has been to improve the environmental acceptability or sustainability of the sector through several interventions and developments such as; a) reduced reliance on fishmeal in fish feed, b) increased efficiency in feed formulation, c) improving food conversion ratio thus increasing net energy
conversion, d) containment and recycling of wastes in cages and flow-through systems, e) increased land and water use efficiency, f) improvement to health management and reduction of chemical and veterinary drug use, and g) domestication and genetic improvement towards reducing negative impacts on aquatic biodiversity.

While production is increased, the global population is also on the increase and the land and water use for aquaculture production is also increasing. Aquaculture production is increasing, not necessarily due to intensification but mainly due to expansion. The global increase in production, at an average rate of 9%, is mainly due to the increase in production rate in China; and if the trend is considered without China the rate is much less. Use of resources such as fish and fish products (fish meal) for producing fish is being questioned.

The net energy conversion in certain forms of aquaculture appears to have negative ecological impacts thus requiring urgent rectification. Reduction in fish meal in fish feed requires more attention and research.

Keeping up with safety and quality

As mentioned earlier, international trade in seafood is a multi-billion dollar sector. Developing countries dominate seafood exports, contributing over 50% to the internationally traded seafood, with developed countries accounting for 80% or more of the imports.

Asian developing countries top seafood production statistics. As the current production through capture fisheries is somewhat static and in order to respond to the increasing demand for seafood, aquaculture is now contributing significantly to global seafood trade and the share is increasing. While the quantity of trade is increasing, the consumer demand for safer seafood is also increasing and as a result the international trading environment is changing, with food safety issues in particular receiving considerable attention.

Traditionally, food safety in seafood has been concerned with post-harvest handling and processing.

Now, with importing countries and consumers concerned about residues, attention has shifted toward the way seafood is produced. This requires aquaculturists to work together with food safety experts to develop systems for farming aquatic animals that assures food safety, (particularly the species which are destined to international trade), based on internationally accepted, science-based quality control mechanisms, such as risk assessment and HACCP and Good Hygienic Practice (GHP).

Food safety concerns are leading to new demands for traceability of aquaculture products. This will not be easy with the large number of small-scale farmers engaged in production, and the fragmented supply chains operating in many countries. Substantial institutional reorganization, legal and policy development, awareness raising and capacity building efforts will be essential among the diverse stakeholders in public and business sectors to make this work.

International food safety standards are being set with minimum inputs from the region, in particularly from the producing sector, for various reasons. Asia needs to enhance and organize better its inputs to international food safety standard setting bodies such as Codex Alimentarius, given the importance of such standards for future trade in aquaculture products from the region. With most countries in Asia giving increased attention to food safety, there is a growing proliferation of product certification systems, “good aquaculture practice” guidelines, Codes of Conduct, and other mechanisms/schemes intended to provide a basis for safe and sustainable seafood production.

Without some harmonization among regional countries, this proliferation of certification schemes has potential to confuse consumers, importing countries, lead to increased costs, and potentially constrain trade.

Asian domestic and intra-regional trade in aquaculture products, services and inputs such as feed and chemicals, is growing, in line with increasing free-trade agreements between countries. This opens new opportunities for trade and development, perhaps helping to avoid some of the complex procedures of other importing regions, but also poses challenges.

This further emphasizes the need for harmonization of food safety assurance procedures among trading partners in Asia. Such cooperation may also avoid problems of residues being transferred from one country to another.

Applying new food safety standards and traceability poses special organizational difficulties for the large community of small-scale farmers in the region, and as a consequence, some of the poorest farmers might be at risk due to difficulties in participating in such schemes. There is a need therefore to better understand the implications of new food safety standards and international trading standards for small-scale farmers, and develop suitable market oriented solutions to the problems faced by the small scale sector, allowing the sector to benefit from the development opportunities offered through trade, while reducing exposure to the associated risks.

Asian aquaculture systems have many traditional and diverse advantages in safe, healthy and sustainable seafood production, such as some ecologically sound integrated farming systems. Collaborative research and development should be used to encourage both the traditions and innovations in aquaculture farming that can give the region comparative advantage in this new trading environment.

Combating disease and managing health

Disease has become a primary constraint to sustainable aquaculture production and product trade. A multitude of factors has contributed to the health problems currently faced by aquaculture. As note above, over the years aquaculture has expanded, intensified, and diversified, based heavily on movements of live aquatic animals and animal products (broodstock, seed, and feed). This trend has been triggered by changing circumstances and perspectives, especially world trade liberalisation.

New outlooks and directions have accelerated the accidental spread and incursion of diseases into new populations and geographic regions, for example, through movements of hatchery produced stocks, new species for culture, enhancement and development of the ornamental fish trade. The impacts of trans-boundary aquatic animal diseases on international trade, as well as socioeconomic and biodiversity implications are considerable. Different measures are being used to deal with diseases of fish and shellfish, such as; international codes, regionally oriented guidelines, national programs and legislation, technology for diagnostics, therapy and information communication.

The aquatic animal health management programs carried out in different parts of the globe are different with respect to efficacy of disease prophylaxis/control and pathogen detection/disease diagnostics, inherent problems with national legislation and international/regional codes, and the effectiveness of programs on education, training and extension services. Health management problems which pose risks to rural small-scale aquaculture require special consideration.

There is a need for effective communication at all levels of the production systems. There are roles to play by the state, private sector (e.g. aquaculturists, industry associations, cooperatives, etc.) professional societies, diagnosticians and researchers, education, training, and other related extension services.

The current trend to meet the demand for more aquatic food, through expansion, intensification, and diversification, will continue to provoke the emergence and recurrence of disease challenges. How industry, government and other stakeholders rise to meet these challenges will dictate how aquaculture survives and achieves true sustainability. The options are not always easy. The varying levels of political, economic and social development among countries, the transboundary nature and commonality of many major disease problems, and the need to harmonise approaches, all complicate effective cooperation and consultation. The current situation offers a big challenge and an opportunity to all concerned but, if maintained at the present level, major epidemics will continue to threaten, break out and impact the ultimate goal of aquaculture sustainability.


Globalization, stringent food safety standards, realization of environmental and social responsibility of aquaculture production has begun to change the way aquaculture development and management has been pursued, in particular the practices which brought global controversy. The ‘aquaculture industry’ will benefit from this and noticeable changes will take place in countries where high value commodities are farmed, especially for foreign markets.

States will respond to improving legislation and regulatory frameworks for better practices, farmers themselves will get together to police and regulate their practices, in the face of less state regulation.

Markets and profits will continue to drive the international trade and as in agriculture sector, larger and more vertically integrated systems will increase their share of the international market. Maybe small numbers of large producers will eventually produce huge quantities of a few species destined for foreign markets. Smaller farms, to make profits, will have to look for specialised products. However, as global economy increases, the viability of these small-scale, profit-oriented farms will increase and will benefit from parallel development of the corporate sector, thus ensuring market synergy and co-existence.

Aquaculture will continue to grow but must address the costs of production, quality and safety of products, international trade obligations and requirements, environmental concerns, etc. More emphasis on investment, research, information, and public education are needed. Challenges for increasing aquaculture’s contribution to food security, poverty alleviation and rural livelihoods will have to be met.

Aquaculture development, especially if it is to be sustainable for food security goals, may need to be stimulated, at least in the beginning, so there should be a key point on increasing access to credit for farmers, producers and local marketing. It is important to understand the investment opportunities in the sector.

In an era of globalisation, it is imperative to emphasise national and international trends of trade.

Trade of aquaculture produce, input supplies, capital and information are all important to acknowledge.

Aquaculture is dependent on key natural resources such as water, land, seed, and nutrients. There is strong pressure for production and marketing systems that are more efficient and more effective in terms of resource utilisation. In this respect, we should invest in research on developing production and marketing systems with better resource utilisation and more efficient performance.

During production, there should be emphasis on targeting the consumers. We must emphasize the difference between mass production and production for the masses. For example, trends of formerly expensive produce such as salmon and shrimp are increasingly becoming affordable by larger segments of the population. We should compete with and complement other food producing sectors and providers.

Aquaculture produce should be acceptable to all sectors of the society. Tremendous gains will be possible through improved biotechnology, genetic modification, improved nutrition, probiotics, disease diagnosis and treatment. However, the problem of consumer resistance to perceived risks stemming from ‘unnatural’ products, ethical problems and fear of unknown technologies will affect potential gain.

As mentioned, environmental and human health issues will slow development or reduce market access.

Strategic solutions are required. We should emphasize biosafety issues, development and promotion of biotechnology that conserve the environment; we should promote policies that support ethical issues of welfare and autonomy and emphasize labeling and transparency for production process and beneficiaries. There is a need to increase the impact of research to understand technical and other constraints and to enhance the applicability and use of research results in the development of strategies to overcome these challenges.


by Rohana P. Subasinghe - FAO

    This article hasn't been commented yet.

    Write a comment

    Click here »