As the blue food sector expands its contribution to global food security, the FAO interviewed Matthias Halwart, head of the global and regional processes team for aquaculture at the FAO, to outline the organisation’s commitment to sustainable practices and the Blue Transformation. Aquatic foods are contributing more than ever before to global food security and nutrition, says the FAO. According to the latest SOFIA report, total fisheries and aquaculture production reached a record 214 million tons in 2020, comprising 178 million tons of aquatic animals and 36 million tons of algae.

In addition to the record production volumes across both sectors, the organisation expects aquatic food production to expand further in the next ten years. For the last three decades, growth has been largely driven by aquaculture, particularly in Asia. As aquaculture continues to expand to meet the ever-increasing demand for aquatic foods, it is essential that this growth is sustainable for people and the planet.

Matthias Halwart, speaks about FAO’s vision for sustainable aquaculture through Blue Transformation and the development of FAO’s Sustainable Guidelines for Aquaculture. Global aquaculture production reached a record 122.6 million tons in 2020, with a total value of $281.5 billion. Largely driven by expansion in Chile, China and Norway, global aquaculture production grew in every region except Africa, mainly because of a decrease in the two major producing countries, Egypt and Nigeria. Asia continues to dominate world aquaculture, accounting for 91.6 percent of the total. Sustainable aquaculture development is critical if we are to meet the growing demand for aquatic foods. However, as with all agriculture production sectors, both expansion and intensification pose risks to the environment. Responsibly managing natural resources, minimising environmental risks, and ensuring that the benefits from aquaculture are distributed equitably are among the reasons why the global community have asked FAO to help develop Guidelines on Sustainable Aquaculture (GSA).

Demand is growing and production is striving to keep pace. While much of this is happening in Asia, production is increasing in other parts of the world as well. Every second fish that ends up on our dinner table is from aquaculture – about 50 percent of aquatic foods are farmed. The sector has become far more important and everything suggests that this trend is going to continue.

With burgeoning growth, sustainability is a priority for FAO.  Any sector that grows fast, particularly in an agricultural context, will inevitably meet challenges. Commercial aquaculture has developed quite recently, often with no dedicated national legislation and limited institutional support. In many countries, laws and regulations are fragmented across various institutions and agencies. This can create bureaucratic obstacles for farmers who need multiple permits and licenses, especially if the regulatory framework is not harmonised. The question is how to provide an enabling framework in any given country to make aquaculture grow in a sustainable way. The GSA are based on sound and enforceable legal and institutional frameworks. They are fundamental if we are to create the right environment for sustainable aquaculture growth and enable the aquaculture sector to optimise its contribution to the development goals of Members. Improved aquaculture systems also require further technical innovations – with a focus on genetic improvements in breeding programs, feeds, biosecurity and disease control – coupled with coherent policies and incentives throughout entire value chain. The draft Guidelines propose a holistic approach to aquaculture governance to address the complexities of the sector, namely the immense diversity in cultured species, production systems, sites, practices and ecosystems. FAO has been working since 2017, through global and regional consultative processes, on the identification of successful initiatives in support of sustainable aquaculture and their compilation into the draft GSA. As part of the process, FAO has convened a series of formal consultations. First, an expert consultation provided the scope and key issues, which were further refined through seven regional consultations, before the document returned for second expert consultation. During these consultations, government representatives discussed and negotiated the text, ensuring all points of view and national and regional priorities were incorporated and agreed.

The draft GSA have been drawn from these inputs and put forward for discussion at the 11th Session of the Sub-Committee on Aquaculture. COFI has since asked FAO to finalise the GSA for the 12th Session in March 2023. A revised version is currently open for comment, which will be reviewed by a Task Force of interested Members ahead of the next session.