Protecting coral reefs — our underwater food factory

Carol Phua of WWF and Karl Deering of CARE tell us why we need to protect coral reefs to secure food and livelihoods for millions of people.

Nearly 700 million people go hungry every day. Acute food insecurity affects more than 130 million people, with one in three people suffering from some form of malnutrition, according to the UN World Food Programme. This crisis has put the spotlight on our broken food systems, which are not only struggling to feed people, but putting tremendous strain on our planet.

Food systems are dependent on biodiversity; nature provides ecosystem services that support the production of food. Coral reefs are one of such important ecosystems. An estimated 850 million people live within 100 kilometres of coastal reefs around the world and more than 500 million women and men depend on reef fish for food and livelihoods.

Because of increasing global demand for seafood, almost 90% of global marine fish stocks are now fully exploited or overfished. We are fishing with greater intensity and reach, going wider and deeper, emptying our ocean faster than ever before. This poses significant challenges to many who depend on fish for protein.

Due to declining fish stocks, some studies have estimated that 19% of the global population, or around 1.39 billion people, are vulnerable to dietary deficiencies since fish make up more than 20% of their food intake by weight. This affects maternal and child health and perpetuates intergenerational food nutrition challenges. And with the global population projected to increase by over 2 billion by 2050, expansion and intensification of food extraction and production will place both our health and ocean under even greater strain.

Aquatic foods

“Aquatic foods” are fish and other food from the ocean and inland waters. From the coveted bluefin tuna to the more accessible edible algae such as sea grapes, aquatic foods contribute to nutritional security, are a source of micronutrients, and can be a shelf-stable, fresh, or frozen source of protein.

The role of coral reefs and sustainable aquatic foods in addressing human and planetary health has increasingly become important.

Around 25% of known marine organisms depend on coral reefs as habitats. Coral reefs are “nurseries of the seas”, a spawning ground for some of the world’s most sought-after reef fish species such as leopard coral trout. On top of the impacts of climate change, overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and pollution from agriculture and other industries are threatening the health of these fragile ecosystems and the aquatic foods they provide.

Investing in transformation

We all need to eat, but our current food systems are hurting the planet. We need to improve food production efficiency and reduce its impact on ecosystems while protecting the livelihoods of millions of people. The UN Food Systems Summit presents an opportunity to transform the structures we have built around food into ones that are more adaptive and responsive to the needs of people, particularly marginalised and vulnerable groups, while addressing their impact on important ecosystems such as coral reefs.

This will require investing in protecting natural food factories like coral reefs from the impacts of climate change. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to food security. Studies project more climate-driven crashes in fisheries production, with a decline of up to 24% in the global catch potential by the end of this century and a 40% decline in catch potential in some exclusive economic zones by 2050. This presents a health and economic crisis for vulnerable countries with limited capacity to adapt.

Hope in seed banks

A recent global analysis has revealed that some reefs are less exposed and vulnerable to climate change impacts. And almost 70% of these climate-resilient coral reefs are found in just seven countries: Cuba, Fiji, Indonesia, Madagascar, Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Tanzania. Linked by ocean currents which transport coral larvae and fish, these refuges of resilience could act as seed banks from which the world’s corals can regenerate in the future.

However, while endowed with resilient reefs, these coastal ecosystems are home to communities that face various and often inter-related socio-economic challenges and food and livelihood insecurity. These often lead to illegal and destructive practices that are taking a heavy toll on marine resources.

To break this vicious cycle and help keep these reefs productive, global partnerships like the Coral Reef Rescue Initiative are bringing together organizations including Blue Ventures, CARE International, Rare, University of Queensland, Vulcan Inc., WCS, and WWF, to collaborate with governments and communities in safeguarding reefs, food security, and livelihoods against climate change. Working with communities in building their resilience to environmental, economic, and social stresses through diversified skills and sustainable and equitable economic opportunities will be crucial in addressing hunger.

Advancing equitable livelihoods

One of the action tracks at the UN Food Systems Summit is on advancing equitable livelihoods. If done correctly, this could be one of the most effective ways for communities and their natural resources to bounce back from the brink of collapse.

There are three principles that should guide our work in this area:

  1. Agency — solutions should support the individual and collective agency of people through improving enabling environments; strengthening capacities, skills, and knowledge (including indigenous knowledge); building social, economic and environmental resilience; advancing human rights and gender equality; and protecting dignity. Advancing equitable livelihoods among all people, but especially among marginalized communities or groups is essential for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. Relations — solutions should change power relations in food systems through progressive adjustments in formal (e.g. market, labour, governance) and non-formal and social (e.g. collective group, gender, household, community) spheres. Unjust and unfair power relations in food systems that result in inequitable livelihoods must be rebalanced. Solutions must seek sustainability and equity as outcomes. Changing relations for equity requires solutions that are rights-based and that tackle personal and institutional bias and discrimination.
  3. Transformation — solutions should transform inequitable structures in food systems by shifting harmful social and gender norms and practices and reforming laws, policies, and institutions that perpetuate or exacerbate inequality and inequity. Transformative solutions should be carried out in ways that do not impede people’s immediate food needs.

Healthy people, healthy planet

How we produce and consume food in ways that are sustainable and equitable will be a defining challenge of this decade. And this will go hand in hand with the ways in which we respond to the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.

We must use upcoming global events such as the UN Food Systems Summit, Climate Conference, and Biodiversity Conference to reshape our relationship with nature and to ensure that valuable ecosystems like coral reefs can continue to provide present and future generations with much needed food and nutrition.

This article was originally published by The Economist Group’s World Ocean Initiative.

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