Fish may help address malnutrition, environmental social science scholar says

May 15, 2022, 9:54 p.m.

Inequities in food systems have created micronutrient deficiencies around the world, and fish have the potential to help remedy the problem, according to environmental social scientist Christina Hicks, who completed an Early Career Social Science Fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions in 2015.

Food systems encompass food-related activities from production to consumption. Hicks stressed inequities in the global food system during a Friday lecture sponsored by the Hopkins Marine Station, citing that North America receives the largest volume of the food produced globally per capita, while South Asia receives the smallest. “More alarmingly,” Hicks said, there is a “difference in the types of food flowing to the different regions.”

Nutrient-dense animal-sourced foods, such as red meat, poultry and eggs, comprise around 30% to 50% of the food available on the market in North America and Europe, according to Hicks, compared to around 10% in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, less-nutritious starchy vegetables make up 40% of the available food in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Inequitable food distribution leads to micronutrient deficiencies, or “hidden hunger,” in children without access to nutrient-dense foods, Hicks said. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals required in small amounts for healthy development, especially in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, according to Hicks. In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, micronutrients are lacking in the diets of children at this important life stage.

Hicks added that inequitable food distribution also harms the environment. Red meat and whole grains are overproduced globally, and a large proportion of the whole grains are used to feed livestock.

The past few years have been “pretty disastrous” for food security, Hicks said. She noted that from 2016 to 2021, the number of people worldwide facing acute food insecurity almost doubled to 193 million, largely due to conflict, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Food systems do provide food, a basic need and human right, but they’re not providing them to everyone, and not fairly and not equally around the world,” Hicks said. “Our food systems are largely failing.”

Because of these concerns, Hicks and her research team set out to investigate the role and potential of fish in people’s diets and in the global food system. Using data on nutrient profiles of various fish species, Hicks said they developed models that “incorporated phylogeny, as well as environmental, diet and energetic traits” to predict nutrient content of fish species.

During its research, the team identified associations between fish species and micronutrient concentrations. For example, Hicks said they found that species from tropical thermal regimes were rich in calcium, iron and zinc.

“This gives us a general rule-of-thumb understanding what types of fish are going to be rich in what types of nutrients,” Hicks said.

Their findings suggest that enough fish are being caught to close nutrient gaps in the regions of the world where those gaps are the greatest, according to Hicks. She cited the case of Kiribati, a Pacific Island country in which the dietary risk of calcium deficiency is 82%: retaining just 1% of the fish caught in its waters would fulfill the calcium requirements of its children under five years old, according to Hicks.

Foreign fishing and trade are diverting nutrients away from regions of the world with more prevalent nutrient deficiencies, according to Hicks. “We have this real availability of these nutrients in places where they’re really important, but the nutrients aren’t getting to the populations that need them,” she said.

To address this issue, Hicks said it is important to invest in equitable, sustainable and inclusive fishery management approaches, as small-scale fisheries will continue to be important nutrition sources in low-income countries.

“Flaws in our food system related to entrenched power dynamics create inequities that harm both people and the environment that we depend on,” Hicks said. “We do need to develop policies that can center principles of trust” and “put food before trade and profit.”

Anne Li '24 is a news desk editor, staff writer and former beat reporter. Contact her at anneli ‘at’

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