Among the countless repercussions of Covid-19, the virus has shaken the foundations on which countries built their food security. The post-pandemic future will be different. As most countries understand the importance of local production, relying exclusively on imports can no longer be the norm.
Let's look at fish, for example. A major commodity, besides being a vital source of food and nutrients it provides employment, trade and economic well-being for millions of people across the world. Fishing and eating fish is also very much part of the global culture. But the sector has been heavily affected as measures implemented to limit the spread of the coronavirus have also limited the transport of products and the movement of people.
In most states in the GCC, however, consumers have had little to worry about as fish supply has barely been affected. With the exception of the early days, the usual consumption and supply patterns have not changed. Several factors may explain this. For one, national air carriers have been dedicating special trips to fish-producing countries in order to import aquatic products – at least to nations that can afford it. Local production, being of strategic interest, has been safeguarded and the industry has benefited from support measures.
For example, UAE fishermen have been granted an exceptional lifting of a fishing ban on some species. This ensures they maintain an income while contributing to the supply of local markets.
The local aquaculture industry, heavily impacted by the closure of restaurants and hotels, exhibited great resilience in the way it reoriented its production to cater to supermarkets.
In the meantime, fish markets that initially had to close gradually resumed operations after implementing safety measures such as the wearing of masks and gloves, monitoring temperatures of everyone who entered markets, providing sanitisers, regular cleaning and ensuring good ventilation.
But the most visible innovation to replace broken links in the supply chain has probably been the emergence of digital technologies. In the UAE, online ordering and home delivery became popular during the lockdown. In Oman, the authorities launched the Behar platform, which allows fish auctions to take place remotely via the central fish market of Al Fulaij. This reduces crowds, while at the same time maintaining operations and keeping up supply. In Kuwait, customers can now register online to get a bar code that allows them to enter fish markets safely.
This does not mean that maintaining the aquatic food supply during the crisis did not carry a huge financial cost, nor that the pandemic will not have a lasting impact on fish value chains across the GCC. Some companies, especially the large aquaculture businesses that have not been able to reorient their production to local markets, did not only lose their income, they also had to endure additional expenses to feed and maintain a stock of aquatic animals.
They will also have to cope with many uncertainties and the global economic slowdown that may follow.
Marine environments have historically played a major role in a region’s culture, food and wealth, but unfortunately eating more wild fish is becoming a challenge, as many species are already fully fished, or even overfished, especially the most emblematic ones.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations said in its flagship publication, State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture, that 34.2 per cent of global fisheries are over-exploited. Hopefully, through specific management measures, the most severely over-harvested fish stocks will recover.
At the same time the aim to sustainably harvest some under-exploited fish should yield more. But this will require commitment and co-ordination, especially between countries managing shared stocks.
The alternative is aquaculture. In the 90s, when the global capture of fisheries reached a plateau, the subsequent increase in demand for fish had to be made up for by aquatic farming. Now, aquaculture already produces 81 per cent of freshwater fish produced globally – 73 per cent of molluscs and 55 per cent of crustaceans.
Although one might think that deserts are not naturally endowed with aquatic resources, that is not an obstacle. With the kind of technological progress and innovation available these days, the production of high-quality, sustainable aquatic food is possible almost everywhere in the world, including arid areas.
With aquaculture such as aquaponics or integrated irrigation-aquaculture, it is possible to produce more food from the same plot and with the same quantity of water, while benefiting from synergistic effects between crops and fish.
There are also great benefits of modern technologies that consume almost no water, such as recirculated aquaculture systems. And one should not forget that the marine environment to which all GCC countries have access is huge, with the potential for farming fish and unfed organisms such as molluscs and seaweed.
For the future, aquaculture is the way to go, together with the establishment of an environment that guides the industry towards its “new normal”. We must farm wisely. We do not want to pollute, nor do we want to destroy biodiversity. We also want to respect workers and communities and, in this way, address the challenges that the pandemic created.
Dr Lionel Dabbadie is senior aquaculture and fishery officer for the GCC and Yemen at FAO, The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN