By: Rebecca Gentry, Elizabeth Ruff, and Sarah Lester
It is well known that producing food has a profound effect on our environment. Headlining statistics, such as agriculture contributing up to one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of the Amazon’s deforestation being linked to raising beef cattle, are sobering. But while all food production inherently has some effect on the environment, the impacts from different types of food production vary enormously, prompting conversations about dietary shifts and sustainability transitions in our global food systems.
As marine ecologists and geographers, we have noticed that a lot of discussion around food system sustainability focuses on the land side of the equation, and yet our vast oceans potentially have a large and critical role to play in the sustainable food puzzle. Indeed, recent research has demonstrated that marine aquaculture – raising fish, shellfish and seaweed in the oceans – has the potential to produce food with a lower environmental footprint, on average, than many land-based food sources, particularly for animal protein.
And yet, despite the potential importance of marine aquaculture to sustainable food production, we have a very limited understanding of the basic patterns of marine aquaculture development and expansion and what factors drive those patterns. Understanding how, why, where, and in what ways marine aquaculture is adopted and expands is important for designing policies and legislation to promote sustainable aquaculture. Barriers to aquaculture in a region could result in missed opportunities for sustainable food production, whereas unrestricted aquaculture growth could push beyond environmental limits.
As one of the early steps in a larger research agenda to better understand global marine aquaculture development and its drivers, funded by the National Science Foundation in the U.S., we examined country-level time series of mariculture production. We noticed that the majority of countries had similar patterns of development—production started out very slowly and remained stagnant for a number of years, and then rapidly started growing. In some countries, production is still growing quickly and in others it has plateaued or even crashed. We wondered if this “s-curve” pattern was typical of innovation adoption in other sectors and whether there were certain common characteristics for countries that fell into these different patterns.
This line of questioning, examining trajectories of mariculture development, started out quite simply, but each analysis raised new questions and ideas about how we could look at these production patterns from new angles. The final product, which was published this week in Nature Sustainability, takes a multidisciplinary approach to exploring these patterns and hopefully inspires more critical thinking about the role of mariculture in global food systems. For us, it has been the jumping off point to look at spatial patterns of mariculture spread around the world and to better understand the political, governance, social, and economic factors that influence mariculture production. After all, a sustainability transition in our food systems cannot be achieved while overlooking the oceans.