By Akanimo Sampson
Director-General of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, has said that political will is the fundamental and necessary ingredient to eradicate hunger and all forms of malnutrition – including overweight and obesity throughout the world.
“The idea that to end hunger we must decide to invest in the poorest is now widely accepted by all the countries of the world,” Graziano da Silva said at an event on how to move from commitment to action to achieve Zero Hunger held during the 41st session of the FAO Conference, the United Nations agency’s highest governing body.
He was speaking as a study by the global agency also revealed that small freshwater fish around Africa offer a large and under-recognised opportunity to boost food and nutrition security, according to a new FAO working paper investigating an array of species and related livelihoods that too often are undervalued.
Small pelagic fish, generally processed, sold and eaten whole, account for three quarters of the total inland fish catch of the continent but because of their low economic value they are not given the attention they deserve. Yet, their unparalleled production rate, and simple technologies used for their capture make them ideal in nutrient-deficit regions.
Take Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, where the introduction of Nile Perch fostered a lucrative although bust-prone industry. Yet catches of dagaa – an endogenous sardine like cyprinid captured on moonless nights- actually contribute more to fisheries output by weight and in terms of regional food security.
Ensuring that these vital “vitamin fish” are accessible and available for human consumption hinges on “profoundly social, economic and political” transformations in areas ranging from governance to marketing, the report says. The fish in question are often seen as “trash fish”, and catching them is often illegal due to rules drawn to protect higher-value and larger fish species.
“The largely unmanaged shift of many African fisheries towards small species may in fact represent a shift to more balanced harvesting” rather than a sign of overfishing of species higher up the food chain, said Jeppe Kolding, a professor of biology at the University of Bergen in Norway and lead author of the technical report. It suggests that potential catches of small species in Africa’s lakes and rivers could be sustainably increased – a significant opportunity to tackle Africa’s hunger and nutrition challenges.
Africa is the only continent with large, natural tropical lakes, and boasts around 1.3 million square kilometers of freshwater resources, including lakes, rivers, reservoirs, floodplains and swamps. Its small fish species consist of mostly zooplankton feeders such as herring and minnows, which weigh only a few grams and are less targeted than larger species such as breams, carps and perches.
While small, they reproduce their own biomass at twice or more the pace of their fancier peers, reaching rates of five times per year and higher. As a result, from an ecosystem perspective, the fishing pressure on most of them is only a fraction of that on rivals higher up the trophic ladder that draw the attention of fisheries managers and policy makers, and drive a pessimistic narrative about unsustainable fishing in African freshwaters. A focus on small species may allow Africa to significantly increase its production of inland fish, the report says.
These small fish have been caught over the ages with simple technology, often by women wading in near the shoreline, splashing the water to chase them into plunge baskets that are still used today, and often repaired with materials such as old t-shirts, curtains, potato bags and old mosquito nets.
Some operations today employ more capital-intensive methods, such as the double-hulled catamaran-based mechanised lift nets and submerged electric lights used to catch sardine-like kapenta in reservoirs along the Zambezi River.
But it’s primarily small-scale, low-investment operations – manually operated purse seines operated from paddle-driven vessels – that have driven the steady increase in catches over recent decades. Moreover, sun-dried processing techniques require minimal energy inputs and produce food with a long shelf life that is suitable for storage in low-income homes that lack electricity and easily exported to cities around the region.
A reason Africa’s catches of small species are poorly understood is also that much of the fishing takes place “in the shadows” and is often informal and illegal, as fishery regulations around much of Africa’s wetlands include minimum legal net mesh sizes in order to prevent overcapture of small juveniles of larger and more valuable species.
The focus on large, often predatory species can result in complex conflicts between fisher folk and fisheries managers tasked with carrying out expensive enforcement efforts to protect higher value species, said Felix Marttin, a FAO fisheries resources officer and co-author of the report. It also leads to “missed opportunities and investments” in a sector rich in promise for providing relatively cheap, local and highly nutritious commodities on a continent with the lowest per capita supply of animal-sourced protein, he said.
The study – which complements a recent report by the same authors on Fisheries in the Drylands of Sub-Saharan Africa- offers a review of numerous tiny species and fisheries around Africa in an effort to fill a knowledge gap that has led to the paradox of rules meant to promote sustainability actually hinder opportunities for maximizing yields while maintaining viable ecosystems.
FAO recommends efforts to compile better catch statistics, recognize the neglected socio-economic and nutritional importance and potential of small pelagic “low-value” fish, and encourage revised regulatory frameworks to promote balanced fishing patterns through a shift towards lower trophic levels.
In the mean time, the FAO big boss has explained that Latin America and the Caribbean, until recently considered a global example in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, tackled the issue with a comprehensive package of social measures that include cash transfer programmes to facilitate access to food for the poorest and most vulnerable people.
Latin America and the Caribbean was the world’s first region to commit to eradicating hunger before 2025, in a commitment ratified by all countries in the Hunger-Free Latin America and the Caribbean Initiative (IALCSH).
“In the first 15 years of the century, Latin America and the Caribbean halved hunger, a tremendous achievement that the entire region can feel proud of”, said FAO’s Assistant Deputy Director-General and Regional Representative to Latin America and the Caribbean, Julio Berdegué.
“In the last six or seven years we have lost momentum and since 2010-201 we have not moved forward. We need to lift an average of 3.5 million people out of hunger each year if we want to reach Zero Hunger by 2030,” he warned.
Berdegué noted with concern the stagnation in the fight against hunger and stressed that efforts should be redoubled in the territories where “the hard core of the problem persists,” such as the southern areas of Mexico and the southern part of the Dominican Republic.
He also highlighted the importance of renewing political will and returning to the agreements that allowed the development of solid institutional frameworks and governance systems such as the Parliamentary Fronts against Hunger.
Berdegué noted the approval of the Food and Nutrition Security Strategy of the CELAC, the region’s many Food and Nutrition Security National Councils, the impetus given to cash transfer programs, and the support to family farming and school feeding programmes, stressing also that hunger can no longer be the only concern: since 2003 the number of obese people in the region has surpassed the number of hungry people.
“Today, for every hungry person there are almost four obese people”, said Berdegué, noting that the increase is largely due to the increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.
“We have to consider this as a global fight so that in no corner of the planet a single child goes hungry”, said Guadalupe Valdez, FAO’s Zero Hunger Ambassador for Latin America and the Caribbean. “To achieve progress in the fight against hunger and achieve healthier diets, we must strengthen public-private partnerships, continue strengthening laws on school feeding programmes, give more support to family farming and regulate food labeling”, she said.
For his part, the Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development Víctor Villalobos, described the measures that the Mexican government is carrying out to “fight hunger and extreme poverty head-on” and promote agricultural development.
The plan, which he summarised in five major initiatives, includes programs to encourage the production of basic crops such as corn, beans or pumpkin; support for coffee and sugarcane production; programs to guarantee incentives and competitive prices for farmers; aid for the use of fertilizers for about 120 000 subsistence producers, as well as programs focused on the development of the southern part of the country.
Villalobos, who quoted the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said: “In short, it is about ensuring that those who feed us are the first to eat.”