The Role of Aquatic Foods in Sustainable Healthy Diets

UN Nutrition
Resource type:
Reports and discussion papers

Diverse aquatic foods – including animals, plants and microorganisms farmed in and harvested from water, as well as cell- and plant-based foods emerging from new food technologies –  have an essential role in ensuring food and nutrition security, while providing equitable livelihood benefits to people around the world.  Aquatic foods from our oceans and inland water bodies are rich sources of micronutrients: iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, vitamins A, B12, and D. They also provide essential fatty acids that are necessary for brain growth, cognitive development, health and well-being. Aquatic foods also offer opportunities for greater ecosystem sustainability, as producing aquatic foods has a lower environmental cost compared to producing most terrestrial animal-source foods. Moreover, as many rural poor are engaged in small-scale fishing and aquaculture activities, these aquatic foods, especially small fish, may be the most culturally acceptable, accessible and affordable animal-source food available.

The consumption of aquatic foods in some areas of the world is more than the recommended 28 g a day for adults, but consumption varies within countries, communities and even households. We often see estimates of national annual per capita fish consumption5 compared with the global average (currently 20.5 kg), although global consumption rates are highly disparate (current national estimates range from 0 kg to100 kg per capita annually) (FAO). This complicates comparisons of per capita consumption between countries or against the global average, as these assume equitable distribution across a population, which is not the case. Per capita consumption is affected by a number of factors, including differences in consumer preferences and behaviour, cultural norms and perceptions, as well as difficulties with the distribution of perishable food items in many areas. 

The cost of a healthy diet remains unaffordable to many, and food and nutrition insecurity has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the fragility of the global food system. Aquatic foods hold the potential for a major contribution to global food system transformation, transitioning towards diets that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable

Key messages:

  • Encourage diversified consumption of aquatic foods, including low-trophic aquatic foods: Several pathways to diversified consumption have been identified, including the creation of an enabling environment to encourage development of affordable, convenient, shelf-stable and desirable food products. Innovations in the supply chain should also be driven towards developing  aquatic food products that are safe, diverse and nutritional while reducing the waste and loss of aquatic foods
  • Ensure equitable and sustainable supply and production of aquatic foods: There are various interventions in the production sphere, such diversifying the types of aquatic foods in aquaculture and capture fisheries; improving access to productive resources; mainstreaming nutrition-demand in production methods; and reducing the reliance on feed inputs that can be directly consumed by humans.  To implement these interventions, governments can support and build the capacity of small-scale fishers, fish workers, and fish farmers – which are often more sustainable and contribute directly to food and nutrition security – by adopting and implementing key principles from the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication
  • Democratize knowledge, data and technologies: Policies, investment and research should aim to co-create meaningful knowledge and usable innovations. They can do this by improving the quality of data collection of aquatic food systems and gather data beyond production - including processing, distribution and retail - to better understand and gain insights into consumer demand for aquatic foods. Evidence-based and data-driven policy recommendations should drive production interventions and supply chain systems that mirror consumers’ needs and demands. 

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This resource presents evidence or data but has not been peer reviewed