With more than two billion more people expected to be living on Earth by 2050, more food will be eaten in the next 50 years than in the whole rest of human history.
Feeding those hungry mouths will be made harder because the green revolution that supercharged our ability to produce food in the 1970s and 1980s is now running out of steam. We have realized most of the potential gains.
We can and will improve our ability to grow food on land, but really, doesn't it make far more sense for humanity to dine out on the huge productive capacity of the waters of the Earth?
And given that Canada has something like nine per cent of all the freshwater on the planet, the longest coastline of any nation, and the necessary technology, expertise and capital in abundance, shouldn't we be leading this charge?
The answers are yes and yes, respectively. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, Canada's potential far exceeds our grasp. And therein lies a (fish) tale.
But first, the sea as the solution to humanity's hunger. In 1973, Jacques Cousteau proclaimed we must farm the sea as we farm the land. The reasons are clear. A little simple math: Food from the sea (both animals and plants) counts for 1.5 per cent of humanity's food supply. And yet water covers seven-tenths of the Earth and, with a little coaxing from human effort and ingenuity, those waters could be producing far more.
The analogy with land-based farming is strong: If we depended solely on the unorganized bounty of nature to feed us, humanity would be a shrivelled shadow of its current self. The planet supports so many billions of people only because we have learned how to make land super-productive and are learning to do so with an ever-smaller ecological footprint.
The so-called blue revolution, taking food production into the waters of the globe, is already well advanced. In fact, it is argued that aquaculture is the fastest-growing food-production system in the world. Aquaculture production is finally overtaking the wild fishery as the largest source of protein from the sea, just as in the distant past, animal husbandry eventually overtook hunting as the primary source of meat.
This has created a worldwide industry that is struggling to satisfy a powerful human need. Global demand for seafood is increasing by almost 10 per cent a year. A fifth of humanity finds its main source of protein in fish, and those people are concentrated disproportionately in the developing world.
Not only are people hungry for fish and seafood, but this food is perhaps uniquely good for us, too. Michael Crawford of Britain's Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition has even made the case that eating seafood, with its rich concentrations of things such as omega-3 fatty acids, at the right stage of the evolutionary process, is what caused the human brain to evolve. We got smart because we ate fish.
Alas for Canada, aquaculture is the story of the big fish that got away. While other countries have seen their annual tonnage grow handsomely, our own aquaculture production has stagnated.
Oh, in the early years of the industry we grew at a rate similar to our competitors. Then we stalled for a decade while others powered past us. As a result, our share of world production has fallen by 40 per cent.
The explanation, incredible as it may seem, is that Ottawa still, after three decades of experience of the industry, cannot break itself of the mindset of the wild-capture fishery. The stability, certainty and security that farmers enjoy through a secure tenure in their land, their crops and their livestock has allowed major investment in productive capacity. But as one aquaculturist said to me, trying to farm fish in Canada is like trying to operate a chicken farm under the rules of the Migratory Birds Act. Fish farmers have been punished, for instance, for harvesting their stock "out of season," a nonsensical notion when the animals only exist because they've been raised by people.
Add to that the NIMBY-ists who are offended by the sight of working farms in Canada's waters and fear-mongers with tall tales of Frankenfish, and you have the perfect recipe for squandering a vital piece of Canada's ability to feed the world while creating year-round technologically sophisticated work in rural areas. Yet time and tide still wait for no man.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a non-partisan public-policy think-tank in Ottawa.
© Copyright 2013