The blue marble

The blue marble

Food Crisis: The Development of Modern Aquaculture in Australia is an Imperative

The US corn crop has failed due to the severe drought and extreme temperatures experienced in the US this year.   But the US is not alone, Ukraine, also a major exporter of grain, has banned wheat exports due to poor harvest this year.   As a consequence only 50 days’ worth of stocks are left in world’s granaries. This will lead to big food shortages and higher food prices in poorer countries in Asia and Africa. Indeed, food prices have already risen by 7% this year and cereal prices rose 17% between June and July. A rise in food prices is often linked to social and political turmoil in poor countries, where people already use most of their income to buy food.

A recent paper published by NASA scientist James Hansen and coworkers in PNAS, alerts that heat waves, such as those affecting the US, Greenland and Southern Europe this year, are becoming more frequent and are linked to anthropogenic climate change. Their analysis shows that extremely hot summers have affected an estimated 10% of global land area in recent years, compared with less than 1% of the Earth’s surface between 1951-1980.

With climate change progressing unchecked due to failure of global leaders to reduce global green house emissions, global population already exceeding 7 billion and heading to 9 billion by 2050, and a forecasted 15 to 20 % increase in per capita calories intake and meat consumption, the future is looking ugly.

Indeed, food security and climate change are considered to be key threats to global security in the future. Some nations, such as China, are already taking action by buying arable land around world, including Africa, and, yes, Australia.

Nations that depend on international markets for food supply must develop a food security policy to reach food sufficiency in the likely event that the international market will run dry of food supply or will only supply food at exceedingly high prices.

Whereas Australia is self-sufficient for cereal supply, this is, again, at risk due to climate change, including droughts, heat waves and floods. Moreover, Australia already depends on imports to supply 70% of domestic seafood consumption. As for cereals, there is no guarantee that excess seafood will be available in the international market for import in the future. A shortage of seafood by 70% seems hardly acceptable for a nation that prides itself of being a maritime nation.

The Commonwealth has announced the development of the world’s largest network of marine protected areas. With 3.1 million Km2 this network will encompass more ocean surface than that protected in the rest of the world. This is a bold, game-changing decision in marine protection and conservation, and one that I value positively, although it poses significant challenges.

In addition to preserving key marine habitats and biodiversity, the network seeks to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks in Australian waters, thereby avoiding the depletion of fish stocks that have impacted many nations, such as Canada.

But, how will Australia be able to satisfy present seafood demands and the increase forecasted if we place a cap on domestic landings?

Whereas many, but certainly not all, Australian fisheries appear to be well managed and sustainable, pushing them closer to overfishing to help satisfy domestic demands further would not alleviate the current deficit significantly. The capacity of wild fisheries to satisfy Australian demands for seafood in the future is even meager, provided the increased demand expected. Hence, pushing fish quotas further, as some argue, would place our fishery resources at risk while not enhancing significantly seafood supply security for Australians.

The only option to improve the capacity of Australia to come closer to satisfy present and project seafood requirements through domestic production is the rapid development of aquaculture. With the third largest economic exclusive zone in the world, Australia has a huge, untapped capacity to develop aquaculture. Yet, it ranks poorly both as a producer of aquaculture and a supplier of new technologies and innovation in this industry.

Australia is a giant in the extent of its economic exclusive zone, but a dwarf in its capacity to develop food from its huge expanse of productive ocean.

The development of Aquaculture in Australia is an imperative and, as a key component of food security, must be introduced as a pivotal element of our national defense policy.

The development of aquaculture in Australia will fail if it was to follow that of the leading Asian nations. In addition of being a component of food security, marine aquaculture must also be a viable business, and yet, aquaculture has traditionally be considered a technology of the poor, arguably unsuitable for a high-wage economy, as the Australian economy is. In addition, marine aquaculture has generated multiple environmental impacts through its dependence on wild fisheries and the emission to the marine environment of nutrients and organic detritus.

The pending Australian aquaculture strategy must be economically viable and environmentally sustainable. Is such strategy possible?

The development of Australian aquaculture must be closely linked to that of biotechnological applications. I submit that an economically viable model for aquaculture in Australia must develop the combined capacity to deliver sufficient mass production as to satisfy national demand, and possibly export, while targeting high-value molecules, such as carotenoids, omega-3 and others, for biotechnological applications. Marine biotechnology is a growing business, growing at 12 % annually and with a global value in excess of 20 billion annually. Comprising a considerable fraction of the global marine biodiversity, the scope for new domestications for aquaculture and biotechnology applications in Australia is immense. Developing an “aquaculture 2.0” industry, underpinning the growth of marine biotechnology and its growing applications, will also flip Australia’s global position from being in the demands side, from being in the supply side of new technologies and innovations for aquaculture applications.

The development of an “aquaculture 2.0” industry Australia must also lead the world into transforming aquaculture into an environmentally sustainable industry. In a previous blog I posed the rhetoric question of whether sustainable aquaculture is an oxymoron. It is not. To become sustainable, aquaculture must close its production cycle to abandon its present dependence on wild catches, focus on the production of macroalgae and animals low in the trophic chain, and combine them in polycultures that maximize production while minimizing detritus production. Moreover, aquaculture can become a tool in conservation biology, helping catalyze the recovery of threatened species and fisheries stocks, and, through the mass culture of macroalgae, help recover degraded marine ecosystems, such as many of Australia’s estuaries.

Regulators should facilitate this transformation, and should leave behind the prevalent attitude to consider aquaculture as a threat to the marine environment. In fact, some regulators in Australia impose more stringent restrictions to license aquaculture farms than they do impose on, for instance, the far more dangerous gas and oil industry. The impacts of aquaculture can be best brought in perspective if compared with the environmental costs of food production on land, responsible for much of water consumption and the deterioration of our waters due to excess fertilizer application, the introduction of dangerous chemicals, such as herbicides and pesticides, in the environment, loss of habitats for biodiversity, a substantial proportion of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission and risks to human health.

In summary, Australia is at the crossroads. It must now develop an all-Australian “aquaculture 2.0” model or be relegated to be on the demand side for both seafood products and know-how from Asian nations.

The development of aquaculture 2.0, combining mass production with key high-value molecules for biotechnology applications and developing best practices to render it a positive force in the environment, will play a pivotal role in ensuring our seafood security in the future. As such it should be a pillar of our defense strategy.