The case for fish farming

by Mike Velings

In the past 50 years, global meat consumption has more than quadrupled, from 71 million tons to 310 million tons. Something similar has been going on with milk and eggs. In every society where incomes have risen, so has protein consumption. While middle classes are on the rise, so is the global population, from 7 billion of us today to 9.7 billion by 2050, which means that by 2050, we are going to need at least 70 percent more protein than what is available today. The United Nations’ latest forecast puts population at 11 billion by the end of this century, which means that we are going to need a lot more protein.

This challenge is staggering — so much so that, recently, a team at Anglia Ruskin Global Sustainability Institute suggested that if we don’t change our global policies and food production systems, our societies might actually collapse in the next 30 years.

Currently, our ocean serves as the main source of animal protein. More than 2.6 billion people depend on it every day. At the same time, our global fisheries are two-and-a-half times larger than what our oceans can sustainably support, meaning that humans take far more fish from the ocean than the oceans can naturally replace. The World Wildlife Fund recently published a report showing that global marine life has been slashed in half during the past 40 years. Another recent report suggests that the largest predatory species — such as swordfish and bluefin tuna — have declined by more than 90 percent since the 1950s.

The good news is that there are a lot of great, sustainable fishing initiatives across the planet working toward better practices and better-managed fisheries. But ultimately, all of these initiatives are working toward keeping current catch constant. It is unlikely, even with the best-managed fisheries, that we are going to be able to take much more from the ocean than we do today. We have to stop plundering our oceans the way we have. We need to alleviate the pressure on them because we are at a point where, if we push them much harder, we might face total collapse.

Our current systems are not going to feed a growing global population. So how do we fix this? What is the world going to look like in just 35 short years when there are 2.7 billion more of us sharing the same resources? The World Health Organization recently reported that 800 million people are suffering from malnutrition and food shortage, which is due to that same growing, global population and the declining access to resources such as water, energy and land. It takes very little imagination to picture a world of global unrest, riots and further malnutrition. People are hungry, and we are running dangerously low on natural resources. For many reasons, we need to change our global food production systems.

We must do better. There is a solution. It is called aquaculture — the farming of fish, plants like seaweed, shellfish and crustaceans. As the great ocean hero Jacques Cousteau once said, “We must start using the ocean as farmers instead of hunters. That’s what civilization is all about, farming instead of hunting.”

Fish is the last food that we hunt.

But let’s back up for a second and talk about why fish is the best food choice. Fish is healthy — it prevents heart disease, it provides key amino acids and key fatty acids such as omega 3s — which is very different from almost any other type of meat. And aside from being nutritious, it is also a lot more exciting and diverse. Think about it, most animal farming is pretty monotonous. Cow is cow, sheep is sheep, pig is pig, and poultry — turkey, duck, chicken — pretty much sums it up. But there are 500 species of fish currently being farmed. And fish can be farmed in a very healthy manner that is good for people and good for the planet.

Let me explain. My brilliant partner and wife, Amy Novograntz, and I got involved in aquaculture a couple of years ago. We attended a meeting at Conservation International, where the director general of WorldFish was talking about aquaculture, asking a room full of environmentalists to get involved because aquaculture has the potential to be just what our oceans and populations need. We were stunned when we heard the statistics. Right now, the amount of fish consumed globally, wild catch and farmed combined, is twice the tonnage of the total amount of beef produced on planet Earth last year. All fishing vessels combined produce about 65 million tons of wild-caught seafood for human consumption. But aquaculture now produces more than what we catch from the wild.

In the next 35 years, however, we are going to need an additional 85 million tons of fish to meet demand, which is almost 150 percent more than we catch globally from oceans. It is safe to assume that that is not going to come from the ocean. It needs to come from farming. For farming we need resources. As a human needs to eat to grow and stay alive, so does an animal. A cow needs to eat eight to nine pounds of feed and drink almost 8,000 liters of water to create just one pound of meat. Experts agree that it is impossible to farm cows for every inhabitant on this planet. We just do not have enough feed or water. We need something more efficient to keep humankind alive on this planet.

Now let’s compare that with fish farming. You can farm one pound of fish with just one pound of feed. That is because fish float. They do not need to stand around all day resisting gravity like we do. And most fish are cold-blooded; they do not need to heat themselves. And fish need very little water, which is counterintuitive. But while fish swim in water, they drink little of it. Fish are the most resource-efficient animal protein available to humankind, aside from insects.

I think of aquaculture as the Blue Revolution. New technologies mean we can now produce a feed that is perfectly natural, with a minimal footprint, that consists of microbes, insects, seaweeds and micro-algae. Healthy for the people, healthy for the fish, healthy for the planet. Microbes, for example, can be an ideal alternative for high-grade fishmeal. Insects are the perfect form of recycling because they are grown on food waste. Think of fly-fishing and you know how logical it is to use insects as fish feed. You don’t need large tracts of land to accommodate the production of microbes and insects, and they are actually net water producers.

This revolution has already started; it just needs scale. We can now farm far more species than ever before in controlled, natural conditions. I imagine, for example, a closed system that is performing more efficiently than insect farming, where you can produce healthy, delicious fish with little or no effluent, almost no energy and almost no water, and a natural feed with a minimal footprint.

There are great technologies popping up all over the globe — from alternatives to antibiotics and chemicals to fight disease, to automated feeders that sense when the fish are hungry so we can save on food and minimize pollution, to software systems that gather data across farms and improve farm practices.

Make no mistake about it, all of these things are possible at a cost that is competitive to what a farmer spends today. Tomorrow there will be no excuse for us not to do the right thing.


This article was excerpted from a TED Talk by Mike Velings, the co-founder of Aqua-Spark, a global investment fund for sustainable aquaculture. Velings’ TED Talk can be viewed at

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