- Food security in the international development community is now considered as a wider phenomenon composed of availability, access, and use. From this perspective, fish trade can be central to food security.
- Unlike many full-time farmers, full-time fishers do not grow their own staple food, and need to be able to sell their products.
- In our study from the coastal Philippines, recently published in the journal Human Ecology, we assessed the relationship between food security and fish trade.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
Marine conservation interventions are increasingly using improved food security in developing countries as a justification and an objective for their work. By improving the supply of fish through interventions such as marine protected areas (MPAs), it is commonly asserted that food security will therefore improve.
MPAs are viewed as interventions that will generate more fish and hence lead to greater levels of food security. The role or the value of fish in this sense is often viewed purely in terms of food. The way in which fish is considered to contribute to food security here is usually through its role in direct consumption.
Correspondingly, the role of trade in food security tends to get strongly minimised. Instead, in the marine conservation community, trade tends to get depicted as a threat to environmental sustainability and a subsequent threat to food security.
This is in many ways quite intuitively appealing: more fish surely equals more food. However, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued more than thirty years ago, the availability of food supplies is not the only or even the most important factor when trying to understand food security. Instead, food security in the international development community is now considered as a wider phenomenon composed of availability, access, and use. From this perspective, fish trade can be central to food security.
Unlike many full-time farmers, full-time fishers do not grow their own staple food, and need to be able to sell their products. Scale is important here: while fish trade is undoubtedly a major contributor to the decline of fisheries stocks at a global scale, trade is fundamental for livelihood and food security at the household level. In our study from the coastal Philippines, recently published in the journal Human Ecology, we assessed the relationship between food security and fish trade.
Meals in the coastal Philippines are typically composed of a viand, or dish, and rice. In the community where we worked, San Vicente in Palawan province, fish was commonly consumed every single day by all of our respondents. The fish that are eaten are typically procured from their own catch: people consume the lower-valued catch and sell the higher-valued catch. Some vegetables that are locally grown are also eaten; meats such as chicken, pork, and beef are too expensive and are therefore rarely consumed.
Rice forms the staple food that is the basis of all meals: without rice it is not considered a proper meal, and people complain of not being ‘full.’ While people can cope without a viand, it is very difficult to cope for long without rice. Rice is considered so important that when asked to explain their understanding of the concept of ‘food security,’ many fishers simply defined it as ‘the ability to buy rice.’ Because San Vicente is not a major rice-growing area, rice has to be bought, and it forms the largest component of many household budgets. The cash to buy this rice comes from fish sales.
Food insecurity was widespread among many of the households we worked with in San Vicente. Parents frequently skipped meals so that children could eat their fill, in other cases whole families would eat smaller quantities, while others reported having to go into debt to buy rice. Malnutrition is common.
Weather is a key factor in patterns of food insecurity: when the weather is bad, people cannot go out fishing and sell their fish in order to buy rice. Those who have accumulated some degree of savings are able to use these savings to buy rice at this time, but for those who haven’t been able to save up enough money, this is the time when they will struggle to get enough to eat. It is the poorer fishers, therefore, who are food insecure. These are fishers who do not own a boat and have to work on others’ boats, or who own very simple boats with very simple gears that do not catch much fish.
Currently in San Vicente, fish stocks are relatively plentiful, and households consume fish several times a day, every day. Yet, despite this high availability of fish stocks, fishing households are in many cases still food insecure. This is because in many cases the availability of fish present in the sea is only indirectly related to the food security status of a household. Food security for these fishing households is instead primarily about the capacity to consume rice, and rice needs to be bought. And the extent to which people are able to obtain rice is strongly informed by income level, derived from fish sales.
Importantly, therefore, rather than being a threat to local food security, trade is actually central to supporting locally defined and relevant food security among full-time fishing households.
Clearly, the availability of fish is still extremely important for trade: fisheries will need to be sustainably managed in order to provide the basis for trade. But the availability of fish is only one element of food security. Lying in between fish production and fish consumption are a wide range of social, political, and economic institutions that determine access to food. This means that if conservationists are seriously interested in engaging with food security issues, as they should be, then greater attention needs to be paid to these sorts of social factors that influence access to food.
- Fabinyi, M., Dressler, W. H., & Pido, M. D. (2017). Fish, trade and food security: moving beyond ‘availability’discourse in marine conservation. Human Ecology, 45(2), 177-188. doi:10.1007/s10745-016-9874-1
Michael Fabinyi is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, whose research focuses on the social and political aspects of marine resource management and use.
Wolfram Dressler is an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His research examines human-environment relations within the framework of critical political ecology in conservation and development.
Michael Pido is a Professor at Palawan State University, Philippines, who has published widely on natural resource management in developing countries.
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