Marine and freshwater foods – so-called “blue foods” – are a vital source of nutrients and income, sustaining the livelihoods of nearly 800 million people worldwide. However, according to a new study of 195 countries led by Lancaster University, despite generating over $424 billion globally, the benefits of the aquatic foods sector are distributed unequally, and often even contribute directly to ongoing injustices. Due to these findings, the study authors call for urgent actions to ensure that marginalized people, communities, and nations have more equal opportunities to benefit from aquatic foods in terms of nutrition, income, and trade.
“Current ongoing crises – from conflicts to pandemics – have only exacerbated global inequalities, and blue food systems are more vulnerable than ever,” said study lead author Christina Hicks, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster. “However, with fairer and more just access and rights, blue foods also present the opportunity to level the playing field, allowing more people to participate in and benefit from this rich and diverse sector.”
The scientists found that the blue food sector supports welfare-based benefits – in the form of affordable nutrition and jobs – as well as wealth-based benefits, in the form of revenue from increased production, trade, and consumption. Unfortunately, various social, economic, and political barriers cause countries most in need of welfare-based benefits to be excluded from the wealth generating benefits, thus limiting their potential for growth.
Moreover, the experts highlighted another tension between the two: the pursuit of wealth benefits risks undermining the critical gains to human welfare from blue foods, such as supporting jobs and nutrition. For instance, in some countries, export-led economic growth could undermine the jobs supported by fisheries and aquatic food systems, along with the nutritional quality of their products.
The analysis revealed that lower income countries produced and consumed fewer aquatic foods, despite employing more people in the blue food industry. In addition, policies often fail to account for gender-related constraints regardless of data suggesting that greater equality for women supported more affordable food and could reduce the number of food insecure people by 17 percent.
Thus, policies based on principles of justice and human rights, with inclusive decision-making processes accounting for the main drivers of injustice, could lead to more equitable outcomes for aquatic food systems.
“Global seafood and other aquatic food systems generate huge economic revenues and blue foods contain large quantities of micronutrients that are absolutely essential to the health and wellbeing of millions. However, our study shows that the system as it stands is not fairly distributing the benefits of these resources and identifies the multiple barriers that need to be overcome. This is a crucial step in ensuring an equitable balance between welfare and wealth benefits and across nations, which is critical to ensuring blue foods can address undernutrition and poverty for millions of people across the globe,” Professor Hicks concluded.
The study is published in the journal Nature Food.
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