ICSF interview with Christophe Béné, senior policy advisor at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia on 14 February, 2019

Interviewer: Dr. Maarten Bavinck, Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies, University of Amsterdam; Chairperson, International Collective in Support of Fishworkers

Camera (Colombia): Julio Mario Fernández, Communications Team Leader, CIAT

Camera (the Netherlands): Remy Käller, MARE Secretariat, University of Amsterdam

(Total run time: 13:42 minutes)


Maarten Bavinck: Dr. Béné, you are one of the leading world experts in the field of fisheries and food security. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us on the occasion of the ICSF campaign on the contribution of small-scale fisheries to food security.

A starting point for this conversation could be the VGSSF 2014 by FAO, one of the key objectives of which is formulated as follows: to enhance the contribution of small-scale fisheries to global food security and nutrition, and to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food. So, these international Guidelines very clearly connect small-scale fisheries to food security. That is the reason we would like to talk to you further about it.

A few years ago, in your article, “Feeding 9 billion by 2050 – Putting fish back on the menu,” you note that fish is already making a major contribution to global food supply. Maybe you could elaborate a bit on this?

Christophe Béné:  In that article, like in others, what were trying to re-establish is well-known knowledge in scientific and academic literature, which effectively is that fish is a very rich type of food. You could say it is one of the nutrient-rich or nutrient-dense foods. By nutrient-rich, we mean, it is a (frontal?) supply of macro- and micronutrients. By macronutrients, we mean particularly two of three major macronutrients: protein and fat. Protein, as you know, is the fundamental element for building and repairing the body. In particular, it is essential for the growth of children. For instance, if you have just one portion of 150 gm of fish, you provide 50-60% of what is needed in terms of protein in a day. That is why it is important.

In addition to those macronutrients, fish is an important source of micronutrients, in particular vitamins – Vitamin D, Vitamin B, Vitamin A – important for growth, for the development of the body, for the immune system and for vision. It also provides minerals such as calcium, iodine, zinc, iron, which are very important to fight malnutrition, in particular in the low- or medium-income countries.

MB: What I hear you say is that fish is a very nutritious food, very important for people’s health, and important for those who are otherwise food deficient. Fish comes from different sources: from industrial fishing, from aquaculture and from small-scale fisheries? What is the relevance of SSF in particular for fish and food security?

CB: Okay, I think there are different pathways to see this. The first way is that small-scale fisheries make available fish in the market. Broadly speaking, if fisheries as a whole has provided between 90-100 million tons of fish every year in the last 10-15 years, about half of that is coming from SSF. More importantly perhaps, almost the entirety of that 50 million ton is for direct human consumption, as opposed to larger-scale fisheries, where 20% of production is actually diverted and not used for direct human consumption. In that sense, the contribution of SSF is as, if not more, important as the larger-scale. In addition, you have to keep in mind that all those SSF employ a lot of people. That means income for those people. Usually they are unskilled labourers; that means that fisheries, in particular SSF, provide livelihoods and therefore allow those people to purchase food – not just fish but food in general – all over the world. So, the direct and indirect contribution to income is very important in relation to fisheries and, as I said, SSF is a big part of that.

MB: Could you talk about the differences in the world and the relative importance of SSF in relation to food security? Is it different in different parts of the world?

CB: We all know that fisheries has not developed the same way all over the world. Asia is the big contributor to fisheries, both large- and small-scale. Latin America and South America are also very important. Africa is behind in many respects and there are many reasons for that. In terms of number of fishers, there is a big proportion of small-scale fishers that live and operate in Asia. Africa is perhaps a bit behind.

MB: As you say, SSF is important because they contribute directly to the human need for fish food. Food security as a field is not only about having sufficient food but it is also about other things like affordability? Would you say something about that?

CB: I think there are two elements in your question. First, building on the work of Amartya Sen in the 1980s, we realize that food security is not simply about availability and not simply about production. One of the critical points made by Sen was that we could see famine in countries where food was available. So, that led us to point to issues of affordability. As I explained earlier, SSF in particular contribute to improving the availability of fish in the world by the fact that a large, if not the whole, production of SSF is used for direct human consumption. So that is the availability part. Now the tricky part is affordability. You might have heard the adage that fish continues to migrate even after being caught; or that fish goes where the money is. What does that mean? It means that fish, for different reasons, is one of those commodities that is highly traded. It’s not simply traded. It unfortunately follows a very strong economic rule, which is that affordability is dependent on or is influenced by availability. In other words, fish is very cheap if there is a lot of fish; otherwise fish becomes very expensive very quickly when it is rarer. Unfortunately, because of the trade towards high-income level countries, it means that the countries where fish is produced, which could be low- or medium-income countries, might not have as much fish available as they produce because a large part of what is produced is exported.

Some people would argue that the money you make with this export, you could buy other food. But the food that is bought may not be as rich – from a nutritional perspective – as the fish that is exported. So, there is a very fine balance to be found between how much money you can make by selling a few fish to rich countries, and how much you should try to keep regionally to ensure the nutrition security of the local people. This is where the balance has not been found yet.

MB: Would you say that SSF, generally speaking, supply more to the local market and also supply more affordable fish?

CB: I think making a generalization would be dangerous, because, like any other issue, the nuance is a very important part of the process. Let’s take the example of Africa, for different reasons. For instance, African countries, like many other low-income countries, are exporting 60% of their production. Sixty percent in terms of quantity. That, in terms of value, is only 50-55%. This means that they are exporting a lot, in terms of quantity, but a bit less in terms of money. But, as I was saying earlier, only 40% of the production from those low-income countries, stay in those countries. So, again, it is a balance of how much of the money you are making by exporting is re-invested in nutritious food. If it is to buy other nutrition, fine. But, if it is to buy less nutritious food, then you could say they are losing from a food security perspective.

MB: If we translate this to, let’s say, a poor urban consumer in Ghana or India, to what extent do they benefit from the catches or the activities of small-scale fisheries? To what extent can we make a connection there?

CB: I think the connection has to be made. It’s interesting that you mention the urban consumers, because I think historically our (multi-model?) about fisheries was a producer in a rural area. So, what people working in fisheries were mainly talking about were those small-scale fishers who operate in rural areas. Now, we know very little about the consumers of the fish in the urban context. For example – I won’t be able to tell you the story – but I would really encourage academics and practitioners into that part of the system, about which we know very little. But we can only imagine that if more than 50% of the world now lives in the urban context, we should definitely pay more attention to that part of the equation.

MB: And we could imagine that this poor urban consumer will benefit from cheaper fish – the availability of cheaper fish?

CB: Yes, that part has already been established. What is already know is that small-scale fisheries are known to provide, in theory, cheaper fish to low-income households. But again, it could be dangerous to generalize those sort of clichés too much.

MB: So, you’d say that it is difficult to generalize but there is evidence that SSF plays an important role also for these poor urban consumers.

CB: I would say this is something that will benefit from more evidence. But, effectively, that is what we could expect, yes.

MB: This brings me to another important point you brought forward in one of your papers in 2015 (“Contribution of fisheries and aquaculture to food security and poverty reduction”), in which you note that, “international food security experts and decision makers seem unaware of the potential that fish can play in the fight against malnutrition.” Would you say that this is still the case? You made this observation a few years ago. Do you see changes happening?

CB: I think this is still the case, even if the situation is improving. Here, I think I should put on a diplomatic hat, because the blame is on both sides. What I had said in that paper was the to recognize that when it comes to the discussion or debate on food security and nutrition, fish was not part of the discussion. I’ve been trying to understand that. I’m saying that blame is on both sides. It is coming from, on one side, the food or nutrition experts and I had the chance to meet and work with some of them in the last few years. You have to understand that those people are not used to thinking about fish when it comes to food security; again, historically, this is because of simple reasons. Food security was, fundamentally, reduced to an issue of production. It became a question of how much food we can produce in the world. In that debate, the cereals came first; so, it was reduced to an issue of how much rice you can produce. The Green Revolution was effectively the boost of rice production, mainly in Asia. Right? Now, that has fundamentally improved the food security of the world. But that has also influenced the way people were thinking about food security, which is that it is about production and not about quality. Now, fish is not too much about quantity. As I was saying earlier, it may contribute 50% of the protein you need in a day but it may only contribute a few percent of the calories you need. If you reduce food security issue to a number of calories, then fish is not part of the equation. It is only recently, for instance through the work of people who have been pushing on the nutrition part, that we started to realize that nutrition is not simply about calories but it is also about the quality of food. And in that sense, fisheries can play a bigger role.

I think the situation has improved, but we still have a long way to go for fish to contribute as much as it should to that debate.

MB: So, you see some improvement taking place. The isolation of the fisheries sector is reducing. It is receiving m ore recognition, but there is still a long way to go.

CB: I think there is still some effort needed and people like you should continue to push the fish cart, if I may – the push and pull, depending on how you see it.

MB: Let’s move to the future. As you mentioned, SSF makes a major contribution to the total availability of food for direct human consumption. But we know that the population of the world is growing. We know that poverty will probably continue and you never know how that will develop. So, there are concerns that SSF may not be able to maintain this food provisioning role in the future. Can you comment?

CB: I would say that in absolute numbers, it will continue. You can probably expect that the contribution of fisheries will stabilize at the level it is at present – around 90-100 million tons per year. The share of SSF will remain what it is if we are reasonable and if we continue the effort, which has been done in the last 20 years, to make those fisheries sustainable. So, in absolute numbers, the contribution of SSF could be maintained. Now, the relative number will decline for the two reasons you mentioned: both growing population and the continuous growth of aquaculture, which will also contribute to the relative reduction in the contribution of SSF to that overall equation. So, again, in absolute numbers, we can predict that in 2030-2040s, the contribution in number of tons that is produced by SSF should be more or less the same, if there are no major issues. But it will reduce proportionally because the number of people to be fed will increase, and the contribution of other sectors that will put fish on the market will have increased.

MB: There are two more questions I would like to ask you. One is about gender. There are many discussions in the fisheries field about the role of gender, the roles that men and women play. Many would argue that in considering the role of SSF in supplying food, a gender perspective is essential. Would you agree with that?

CB: Yes, I agree and I will expand it a bit. We have so far seen one side of the equation of the contribution of women to the fisheries and SSF sector, which is the well-documented evidence that women are involved, not too much in the production side, but in the transformation, processing aspects. I think there is evidence to argue that about 50% of the people that are involved in general in the sector are women (not the production, but definitely the processing sectors). But that has been established. What we are still missing is the nutrition perspective. From that perspective, the science has shown that women, for very different reasons, are the best entry point to try to improve nutrition at the household level. So, if don’t simply see women as the supplier of the fish, but also as the person who will be cooking it, who will ensuring that the children and the old people have their share, then you can an additional layer to the discourse around the importance of women in fisheries, in relation to food and nutrition security.

MB: So, if we add the consumer perspective to our understanding, you’d say that women play a very important role on the consumer side, in deciding about the kind of food, cooking it, making sure that the children get their food, etc.

CB: Yes.

MB: In conclusion, another question regarding the future is climate change. Climate change is one of the factors that is impacting all segments of society and also fisheries. What is your estimation of how climate change may affect the extent to which SSF can contribute to food security?

CB: I’m not a specialist on that part. My understanding at this stage is that we need to decouple the equation between the resource itself and the people who depend on the resource. The resource, which is the fish, is very mobile. So, overall, yes, the fish will be affected by climate change. But they will shift up and down, left to right, to find the right conditions. They are not tied to any particular region. They will, after transition, establish themselves in a more acceptable ecosystem for the species we are talking about. So, overall that is going to be okay. But human societies are far slower to adapt to those changes. If people who have established themselves in one region were to continue to fish that species, they will have to follow that species if they can. That is probably where most of the effort and support will have to come. Not necessarily support the fish themselves, but the population that lives somewhere. If they really want to continue to exploit one particular species will have to move. Or have to adapt to change. This is not just fisheries; it is the whole world who will have to adapt. This is an issue for farming. But, when we talk about the impact of climate change on fisheries, I think we should insist on making the difference whether we speak about the fish or whether we speak about the people who depend on those fish for their livelihoods.

MB: You are saying from the point of view of the availability of fish, climate change may not make so much of a difference in a global perspective. But it will have implications for whether fishermen in a certain location are still able to do the kind of fishing they used to, or whether they will have to move-

CB: Remember, as I said, this is a very simplistic way and I’m sure that people who have worked more on this will make more nuance, but I think that it is important to make a difference between societies and resources in that respect.

MB: I think we have covered a lot of topics. I’m sure we could talk a lot more but I think we should wind this up. Thank you so much, Dr Béné, for this conversation and I look forward to continuing it in the future, somewhere in the world.

CB: Thank you, Maarten.

Author: ICSF
Year: 2022
language: English