Increasing Food Production?
01 / 1998
International development agencies and governments maintain that unless scientific techniques, including aquaculture, are used to raise fish, yields cannot be increased. This will reduce the global per capita availability of fish, thus endangering the health and lives of millions of people who depend on fish as their major source of protein.
But recent trends indicate that the incentive to expand aquaculture arises from a desire for profit and export markets. This has been particularly true in the case of prawn aquaculture, where instead of producing more shrimps for more people, the value addition has only gone to create a more expensive product, beyond the reach of the ordinary consumer.
Development and aid agencies regard traditional methods of shrimp culture as inefficient and unprofitable. Encouraged by them, firms which subsequently entered aquaculture have employed capital-intensive techniques to raise fish species in isolated monoculture systems, requiring regular inputs like special feeds and chemicals. The products of these farms are high-value species like prawns and salmon.
As a result, in several countries, aquaculture for export has begun to dominate the fisheries sector. For instance, in Chile, the government restricted the sale of salmon in the local market and banned artisanal fishing in rivers and lakes that contained salmon cages. The aim was to encourage the export of farmed salmon. In the Philippines, fish pens have come up in bays where traditional fishermen used to fish. In Taiwan and Indonesia, ponds that were used to raise milkfish, a herbivorous species much in demand locally, were converted into aquafarms for the export market.
In these and other countries, the new stress on aquaculture has led it to encroach on agriculture too. Not only do some fish farms take over agricultural land, intensive aquaculture calls for large quantities of freshwater, which, in turn reduces the amount available for irrigation. There are also problems associated with the use of chemical inputs. In South Thailand’s "rice bowl" area, yields dwindled as chemical effluents from 15,000 acres of prawn
farms polluted the canals used to irrigate the paddy. Increased salinity from aquafarm operations also cut back rice yields in Khulna in southwestern Bangladesh.
As commercial fish farmers expropriate communal land and water rights, the ability of local people to produce food for themselves is thwarted. In 1994, for instance, farmers who had lost land to a $24 million Saudi Arabian-backed fish farm in Kedah State, Malaysia, launched protest campaigns. Around the same time, similar protests occurred in Indian and Bangladesh too.
The high costs of the new intensive systems of aquaculture have also intensified social inequalities. Preparing one hectare of prawn pond requires between $13,700 and $27,300 as initial costs plus an equal amount for operating expenses. Further, these farms tend to employ fewer workers, concentrating on just a handful of skilled workers. The economic benefits of the prawn farms, either in the form of money or food, have not trickled down to fish traders and coastal communities.
Agribusiness companies tend to enter into contracts with farmers for the supply of inputs. Under such a contract, for instance, Thai farmers agree to buy all their feed requirements from Charoen Pokphand, a leading Thai feed and prawn company. In the Philippines, the San Miguel Corporation controls the sales of prawn feed to farmers who have signed a contract to buy prawn fry from the company’s hatchery and sell back the final product.
Multilateral lending through aid agencies like the World Bank has been rising, especially in then early 1990s. Much of the money flowing into aquaculture is for high-tech projects that generate foreign exchange, while ignoring local conditions. The growth in aquaculture, especially the culture of commercially valuable carnivorous species that consume fishmeal, competes with stocks from the oceans. The FAO has thus endorsed the call to promote
species which are herbivorous and/’or omnivorous and do not depend on high-quality protein-rich feed inputs.
Although multilateral aid agencies have been encouraging the development of aquaculture as a source of food, particularly in the context of a decline in global supplies of marine fish, the end results may not benefit domestic consumers in developing countries. This is because commercial aquaculture is geared towards the raising of high-value carnivorous species, meant for the export markets in overseas countries. The fact that aquaculture can be used as a source of cheap protein, as has been happening traditionally, seems to have been forgotten.
Modern aquaculture practices, particularly of the intensive, monoculture type, tends to marginalise small-scale farmers and coastal communities who have often depended on traditional aquaculture to supplement their diets with additional protein. By acquiring an exclusively commercial orientation, modern aquaculture ends up creating luxury products for foreign tables, not low-cost protein for impoverished local communities. This trend is likely to
intensify, especially now that the emphasis on global trade is increasing and countries are keen on raising their foreign exchange resources. In the context of aquaculture, therefore, the real challenge is to reconcile these conflicts of interests and ensure that nutritional and livelihood concerns are not relegated to the background.
Articles and files
WILKS, Alex, Prawns, profits and protein: Aquaculture and food production in. The Ecologist, 1995/06, Volume 25, No.2/3