Around 12,000 years ago, humans began to make the shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. The Neolithic agricultural revolution had profound effects: vastly increasing the food supply, growing the population and, ultimately, leading to the emergence of cities, states and civilisation as we know it. It also transformed our environment, clearing forests, destroying habitats, developing new breeds of animals and plants - leading to the landscape of green fields that we know today all around the world.
But one field of food production remained largely untouched for another 120 centuries: the production of fish and other aquatic organisms like crustaceans and algae. Only in the mid-20th century did hunting of fish start to give way to farming of fish in any significant volume. And only in the past decade or so has farmed fish production overtaken the catch from wild fisheries.
In the UK, we know about farmed fish – think of the salmon, trout and seabass you see on supermarket shelves – and while it’s cheaper than wild caught fish, it is still a fairly expensive product serving a niche market. But that production is small and unrepresentative by global standards: the vast majority of the world’s fish farming takes place in Asia.
China produces more than the rest of the world put together. India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam each produce more than Europe and North America combined. And unlike the salmon farms of Scotland and Norway, Asian fish farms overwhelmingly produce cheap freshwater species, ones that we aren’t so familiar with here: carp, tilapia and pangasius.
If done properly, farming aquatic animals – or aquaculture – can be an effective and ecologically sound way of providing protein to the world. Fish are more efficient at converting feed into meat than land animals are, for one thing, and they are also healthy, being both low in fat and rich in nutrients.
But if done incorrectly, aquaculture can be harmful – carnivorous fish like salmon need wild-caught fish in their diet, and these are not always caught sustainably. Prawn farming in Thailand and Bangladesh has been responsible for grave damage to coastal ecosystems, with farmers clearing mangrove forests to build their lagoons.
Over the next few months, thanks to a grant from the Global Innovation Fund, we will be leading a new project to support this blue revolution, helping it fulfil its promise of feeding the poor without destroying the planet. We will be looking at how to boost the production of healthy and nutritious farmed fish in poor farming communities in India and Bangladesh, supporting livelihoods, nutrition and ecosystems in the process. We’re interested in how feed can be improved, water quality maintained, and efficient farming practices encouraged.
We’ve teamed up with Forum for the Future, a global sustainability charity, and the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture - the UK’s leading experts in fish farming - in a six-month programme of research and prize design to identify the innovations that could help the sector grow.
We hope to have some major prizes to announce in the summer of 2017 and will be launching a project page on the Challenge Prize Centre website early next year to share more detailed information about our progress.