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During a recent session at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, government representatives and sustainability advocates discussed the role of aquatic foods and water management in developing more resilient communities and mitigating the climate crisis. The conversation was organized by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Food Systems Pavilion.
According to Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted, winner of the 2021 World Food Prize and an aquatic food system champion, food system solutions “must move beyond land-based crops and livestock to food below water,” she shared during the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. “The potential of diverse and nutritious aquatic foods is ripe for the picking, offering a path to produce sufficient food supply without increasing carbon emissions while reducing ecosystem stress and habitat loss.”
Aquatic foods include wild harvested or cultured and cultivated marine and freshwater species, explains Rose LaBrèche, Manager at International Oceans Policy for Oceans Canada. Globally, 2,500 different species are caught or cultivated for human consumption, including shellfish, plants, and algae. These species support the livelihoods of over 800 million people and supply protein to over 3.2 billion people worldwide.
Globally, “millions of people live from the ocean and need the ocean to live,” says Martha Delgado Peralta, Undersecretary of Multilateral Affairs & Human Rights at the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Mexico. She emphasizes the urgency of proper management of oceans, particularly for oceanic nations such as Mexico.
A cross-sectoral group of over 30 members representing government, NGOs, academia, and more launched the Aquatic Blue Food Coalition in 2022. Its goal is to highlight the importance of aquatic foods and their role in addressing the climate crisis and combatting food insecurity.
Panelists argued that integrated water management is essential to address the climate crisis, and spoke to the need to move away from a siloed approach. “Water is the driver of change. Any extreme that has a negative impact on nature, on people, on society, on economy, is water-driven, [from] drought, to floods, to water scarcity,” says Darko Manakovski, Head of Global Development for Global Water Partnership. He adds that approaches to land management impact the global hydrological system, evaporation patterns, precipitation, and food production.
“To break this silo, we need to understand that water is a very local matter, and we need to invite local governments to the Conference of the Parties [COP], in order for them to show the problems that people are facing,” Delgado Peralta adds.
California is the most productive agricultural state in the U.S., yet the state is also particularly vulnerable to water scarcity. “The climate is changing everything about our water system,” says Karen Ross, Secretary of California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). She says that California’s ability to sustainably manage its aquifers and groundwater will determine its food production. Ross also stresses that holistic climate models are important for understanding not only past water patterns, but how current and future water patterns will impact California’s food system.
To better manage the global water supply, Manakovski says it’s crucial to understand the true value of water and move from framing it as a public good to a common good, and to treat water as a joint resource that is managed collectively. “It’s important to share and use data to understand the impact of water availability on food security, irrigation, and equity,” Manakovski says.
To achieve these goals, panelists stressed that a diversity of stakeholders must have a voice, particularly those who have historically been excluded, including women, youth, and Indigenous Peoples. “We are dealing with volatility like we’ve never seen before,” says Ross. Addressing this “starts with thinking from the people at the local community… and understand[ing] who’s not at the table to get to better decisions.”
Including fishers from different regions is also key to building resilience in aquatic food systems. “If we are to really change the approach of sustainable [water] management, it is mandatory to include not just the voices [of fishers], but to understand the meaningful needs of fishers around the world. And there are very different needs,” Delgado Peralta says. For example, she shares that NGOs in Mexico are working to help fishers diversify their incomes with other kinds of activities. “It is a mix of different solutions that we have to propose and start piloting with them,” she says.
And LaBrèche says that finding ways to engage youth that are meaningful to them, such as through social media, can help to involve them in decision making processes.
“Young people need mentoring, they need support, and they need inclusion,” Delgado Peralta says, explaining that youth leaders have been trained to lead multinational negotiations. “We have been better with their presence.”
Watch the full conversation below:

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Amelia Keleher is a Food Tank Research & Writing Fellow based out of Portland, ME. Her undergraduate coursework and community-engaged learning explored food and/as social justice at Bates College, where she majored in American Cultural Studies. Amelia grew up raising dairy goats along the Rio Grande in Corrales, NM and spent eight years living abroad in The Netherlands. Since then, she has worked on several farms in northern Spain and is currently continuing to explore the many Maine farms and nonprofits seeking to build a more equitable and sustainable food system. She is particularly passionate about regenerative agriculture, food access and food security, and the unique personal and collective narratives told through food.
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