www.thelancet.com/planetary-health Vol 3 April 2019
Will ﬁsh be part of future healthy and sustainable diets?
The adoption of healthy and sustainable diets and
food systems is recognised as a means to address the
global challenge of malnutrition and poor-quality
diets, and unprecedented environmental damage
from food production and consumption.1 Sustainable
diets have also been recognised as a key strategy to
achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Reducing
consumption of animal-source foods is frequently
presented as key to improving the sustainability of
food systems.2 Fish and seafood can have a lower
environmental impact and in many cases are considered
more eﬃcient than terrestrial animal production
(albeit with wide variation) depending on the type
of production or capture method,3 yet remain largely
absent, or insuﬃciently articulated in the sustainable
diets literature, rendering their future role in healthy
diets unclear.4 This absence of speciﬁc consideration of
ﬁsh and seafood extends to food security literature, in
which the role of ﬁsh remains under-recognised and
undervalued.5 Legitimate concerns exist regarding
the environmental sustainability of ﬁsheries and
aquaculture systems; however, we argue that an
overemphasis on the so-called doomsday portrayal of
ﬁsh—which often dominates literature and the broader
media—masks the myriad of positive contributions
of the ﬁsheries sector to nutrition and sustainability
and limits its scope in contributing to healthy and
sustainable food systems.
Fish have a wide range of nutritional beneﬁts and
should be included as part of a healthy diet.6 Firstly,
ﬁsh is a concentrated source of highly bioavailable
nutrients including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty
acids, and high quality protein. The health beneﬁts
of ﬁsh are well documented, including protection
against chronic disease as well as beneﬁts for child
growth and development. Although food safety
issues such as contamination with methylmercury are
a concern for some susceptible groups, the beneﬁts
of ﬁsh consumption generally outweigh the risks.7
Consumption of ﬁsh as part of a healthy diet oﬀers a
unique prospect to address the global health issue of
malnutrition (undernutrition, micronutrient deﬁciency,
and non-communicable diseases associated with
overweight or obesity), which are simultaneously
experienced in many parts of the world.
A frequently cited concern regarding aquaculture
in environmental terms is the use of wild-caught
ﬁsh in feed. However, the proportion of ﬁsh used for
this purpose globally has been steadily declining, as
ﬁshmeal and ﬁsh oil are increasingly replaced with
more sustainable sources such as ﬁsh by-products or
plant-based ingredients.5 Feed conversion ratios have
decreased by more than half in the past 25 years, and
development of novel aquaculture feed ingredients
such as microbial-derived nutrients, seaweed, and
insects, oﬀers the potential to further reduce reliance
on wild-caught ﬁsh and terrestrial inputs in the future.8
Furthermore, eﬃcient use of underutilised species,
by-catch, and ﬁsh-by-products throughout the value
chain (including by consumers) is growing and oﬀers
substantial potential to improve sustainability of
the ﬁsheries sector.9 Approaches such as integrated
multi-trophic aquaculture (involving polyculture of
several plant and animal species together) can improve
sustainability, although understanding which forms
will have the greatest ecological and economic beneﬁts
remains a challenge.
Although the majority of well documented capture
ﬁsheries are sustainably managed,10 overﬁshing and
ecosystem damage remain major concerns for others.
Wider recognition of the contribution of ﬁsh to the food
system, and the consequences of reduced availability of
ﬁsh for consumption, will help drive reforms in ﬁshery
The contribution of ﬁsheries to the broader social
and economic dimensions of sustainability are also
often overlooked. This sector underpins livelihoods for
at least 140 million people, nearly all of whom live in
developing countries operating within the small-scale
sector,10,11 and has a substantial role in poverty reduction
and improved food security of poor consumers.12 The
sector faces several social challenges including human
rights misconduct, poor working conditions, and social
inequalities, all of which are gaining increased policy
attention. We suggest that rather than a barrier, with
appropriate research and targeted interventions, these
challenges oﬀer an entry point for maximising the
positive eﬀects of the sector.
Fish does, and must continue to, play a key role
both in human health and the economic, social,
www.thelancet.com/planetary-health Vol 3 April 2019
and environmental sustainability of food systems.
We identify several research and policy priorities
for progression of this agenda. Firstly, aquaculture
is a relatively new ﬁeld and great scope remains
for research and development, including broader
consideration of species and breeding, improved
eﬃciencies in inputs including feed, biosecurity, and
the integration of aquaculture systems within broader
ecosystems. In particular, a better understanding of
how aquaculture and ﬁsheries are integrated within
freshwater management is required, as well as the
environmental impacts of increasingly linked aquatic
and terrestrial food production through aquaculture
feed. Furthering the understanding of the importance
of integration requires recognition of the diversity
of capture ﬁsheries and aquaculture systems, which
often reﬂect a continuum, rather than distinct
systems, with important inter-linkages and feedback
loops. Sustainable intensiﬁcation in this context must
consider potential trade-oﬀs at a broader system level,
not only within but also beyond food systems, to
the ecological, environmental, social, and economic
systems, and their interactions.13 Attention in policy
making and management implementation must also
shift from predominantly large ﬁsheries to smaller,
food-critical ﬁsheries, if the beneﬁts of ﬁsheries for
food security are to be realised. Finally, transdisciplinary
approaches to research and policy throughout ﬁsh
value chains are fundamental.
*Jessica R Bogard, Anna K Farmery, David C Little,
Elizabeth A Fulton, Mat Cook
Commonwealth Scientiﬁc and Industrial Research Organisation,
Agriculture and Food, Brisbane, QLD 4067, Australia (JRB, MC);
University of Wollongong, Australian National Centre for Ocean
Resources and Security, Wollongong, NSW, Australia (AKF);
Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA,
UK (DCL); Commonwealth Scientiﬁc and Industrial Research
Organisation, Oceans and Atmosphere, Hobart, TAS, Australia
(EAF); and Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of
Tasmania, Hobart, TAS, Australia (EAF)
We declare no competing interests.
Copyright © 2019 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an Open
Access article under the CC BY 4.0 license.
1 HLPE. Nutrition and food systems. A report by the High Level Panel of
Experts on food security and nutrition. Rome: Committee on World Food
Security, 2017. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i7846e.pdf (accessed Oct 9, 2018).
2 Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene:
the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food
systems. Lancet 2019; 393: 447–492.
3 Hilborn R, Banobi J, Hall SJ, Pucylowski T, Walsworth TE. The environmental
cost of animal source foods. Front Ecol Environ 2018; 16: 329–35.
4 Farmery AK, Gardner C, Jennings S, Green BS, Watson RA. Assessing the
inclusion of seafood in the sustainable diet literature. Fish and Fisheries
2017; 18: 607–18.
5 HLPE. Sustainable ﬁsheries and aquaculture for food security and nutrition.
A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition.
Rome: Committee on World Food Security, 20172014. http://www.fao.
org/3/a-i3844e.pdf (accessed Sept 10, 2015).
6 Thilsted SH, Thorne-Lyman A, Webb P, et al. Sustaining healthy diets:
The role of capture ﬁsheries and aquaculture for improving nutrition in the
post-2015 era. Food Pol 2016; 61: 126–31.
7 FAO, WHO. Report of the joint FAO/WHO expert consultation on the risks
and beneﬁts of ﬁsh consumption. Rome: Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization, 2010.
(accessed Sept 1, 2017).
8 World Economic Forum, McKinsey and Company. Innovation with a
purpose: the role of technology innovation in accelerating food systems
transformation. Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2018. http://www3.
(accessed Nov 11, 2018).
9 Stevens JR, Newton RW, Tlusty M, Little DC. The rise of aquaculture
by-products: increasing food production, value, and sustainability through
strategic utilisation. Marine Pol 2018; 90: 115–24.
10 FAO. The state of world ﬁsheries and aquaculture 2018—meeting the
sustainable development goals. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization
of the United Nations, 2018. http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf
(accessed March 4, 2019).
11 Mills D, Westlund L, de Graaf G, Kura Y, Willmann R, Kelleher K.
Under-reported and undervalued: small-scale ﬁsheries in the developing
world. In: Pomeroy R, Andrew N, eds. Small-scale ﬁsheries management
frameworks and approaches for the developing world. Wallingford:
CAB International, 2011.
12 Béné C, Arthur R, Norbury H, et al. Contribution of ﬁsheries and
aquaculture to food security and poverty reduction: assessing the current
evidence. World Dev 2016; 79: 177–96.
13 Little DC, Young JA, Zhang W, Newton RW, Al Mamun A, Murray FJ.
Sustainable intensiﬁcation of aquaculture value chains between Asia and
Europe: A framework for understanding impacts and challenges.
Aquaculture 2018; 493: 338–54.