Food systems don’t stop at the water—the need to focus on aquatic foods

When you think about your next meal, what comes to mind? For half of the world’s population, the answer is fish, seafood, and plants harvested from water. Aquatic foods are the main source of protein and micronutrients for 3 billion people and support the livelihoods of more than 600 million worldwide. They are central to coastal cultures and ways of being.

Holistic food systems that promote environmental, health, social, and economic benefits exist and are rapidly gaining traction as solutions to hunger, climate change and economic development challenges. Significant progress has been made on land: now we must factor in the integral role of aquatic foods as part of nutritious, sustainable, and culturally appropriate diets and coastal community economies. Doing this starts by recognizing where these spaces meet, how they interact, and what challenges are shared between both water- and land-based food systems.

Despite their role in nourishing people and communities, aquatic foods and ecosystems have been overlooked by global food systems actors. 

It has become increasingly clear how industrial and extractive agricultural practices on land can jeopardize the health and well-being of people and the planet. Unfortunately, those threats do not end where land meets water. Industrial fishing practices and poor management of oceans, rivers, and lakes have cut fish populations in half, damaged ecosystems, and accelerated climate impacts. Fishing jobs remain poorly paid and precarious, with more than 50% of those jobs held by women.  

Extractive food systems, on land and in water, pursue yields at high environmental, social and economic costs. In doing so, these practices inhibit progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals and still have not addressed the world’s hunger crisis—828 million people globally remain undernourished. We need better food systems that can feed communities well, and simultaneously offer good livelihoods and tackle the mounting climate and biodiversity crises. 

Land-based activities inevitably impact water ecosystems. Take phosphorus runoff. Though phosphorus is naturally occuring in soil and necessary for plant growth, farms have been adding excess amounts as fertilizer for decades in pursuit of higher productivity. Research and community-based evidence have exposed the consequences of phosphorus runoff into water sources: algal blooms that contaminate drinking water, consume oxygen, and prevent native plants from getting the sunlight needed to survive. The outcome is an alarming decline in fish populations and other aquatic life, which impacts coastal communities. We cannot meaningfully transform food systems without tackling terrestrial and aquatic systems together.

One challenge shared by water- and land-based food production is the overfocus on productivity and profit. Around the world, farms have switched to growing large volumes of export-oriented cash crops like rice, wheat, and corn. Meanwhile, fishing and aquaculture have focused on a narrow range of “high-value” fish and seafood species. There have been cases where these commercially grown fish have managed to escape their contained environments and threaten native species and ecosystems. Focusing on yield and profit as the main metrics of success in food systems has many unintended consequences, including limiting the ability for local communities to grow, harvest, and fish traditional foods and an over-reliance on imported food products.

A second shared challenge is the rising global demand for animal-based protein. This has increased the pressure to grow more corn and soybeans as feed for intensive livestock production. We see something similar in fisheries, where small fish that could be otherwise eaten by communities are instead directed to feeding carnivorous aquaculture species. This is an inefficient use of edible calories.

This is particularly problematic because nearly half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. Of that, a whopping 77% is dedicated to intensive livestock farming and animal feed production. Industrial-scale aquaculture operations, too, require significant space and can negatively impact ecosystems, such as the clearing of mangroves across Southeast Asia to create aquaculture ponds for shrimp farming. 

Thirdly, in many communities worldwide, people draw no distinction between subsistence farming and fishing—both activities are integral to their livelihoods and food sources. 40% of global fisheries’ catch comes from small-scale fishers, while smallholder farmers contribute 70% of global food production. With the unpredictability of weather patterns, rising sea levels, and shifting market demand, people are increasingly dependent on both land and water-based livelihoods. Advocating for small-scale food producers must include supporting community fisherfolk: at least 7% of the world depends at least partially on small-scale fishing for their livelihoods.

Finally, actors in biodiversity and climate spaces are gradually acknowledging that food systems transformation is an untapped opportunity to achieve climate and conservation targets. And though rainforests and peatlands are generally the ecosystems that come to mind when we think of carbon-rich environments, the ocean is the planet’s largest carbon sink, and absorbs more than one-quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions. 

Recent scientific research has found that a healthy fish population is needed to maintain the ocean’s ability to mitigate climate change. At a local level, when managed sustainably, aquatic foods can deliver improved nutrition with relatively low environmental impacts, compared to many land-based food systems. Notably, the High Seas Treaty agreement reached earlier in March establishes marine protected areas in international waters, in line with the global goal to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. This will limit fishing and other industrial activity in these areas, and calls for a reexamination of sustainable fishing practices worldwide. 

Food systems don’t stop at the coast. Fish, seafood, and plants harvested from water are central to the lives, nutrition, and culture of billions worldwide. Recognizing this, the Global Alliance is including aquatic foods in its priorities in 2023 and beyond in its work to transform food systems. 

As a network of philanthropic organizations committed to food systems transformation, we recognize the need for funders and policymakers to integrate aquatic foods into their food systems portfolios and decisions. Only then can we truly support more nutritious diets and end hunger, create better and more secure livelihoods, and build a fairer, more climate-resilient food systems.


Patty Fong
Program Director, Climate and Health & Well-being