Blue food: the ocean/climate gateway

By Chris Gorell Barnes.

Tackling the climate crisis and decarbonising the economy is a massive endeavour. Adding the ocean to the equation is the only way to make the outcome possible. But what is the one thing we can all do?

Dive Deeper

More than 70,000 people, including activists, billionaires, presidents, indigenous leaders, business executives, monarchs and diplomats have gathered at Dubai’s Expo City for the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28). While it is designated as a ‘climate change’ event, it is essential that the ocean stays at the forefront of any climate conversations. It is crucial for humanity to survive.

John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, who spoke at an ocean dinner we hosted at COP28 with Deutsche Bank, Community Jameel, The Nature Conservancy and the Blue Marine Foundation, continues to be vocal about the ocean/climate connection. “The climate crisis and the ocean are inextricably linked… You cannot solve the problem of the climate crisis without solving the problem of the ocean,” Kerry reiterated in March 2023.

Otherwise, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out at the Climate Ambition Summit in New York, “If nothing changes, we are heading towards a 2.8°C temperature rise — towards a dangerous and unstable world”. But nowhere did Guterres speak about the role of the ocean as a critical defence against climate change, except in his closing sentence: “We must turn up the tempo.  Turn plans into action.  And turn the tide”.

So, what can every one of us do to be part of turning the tide? The answer lies in how and what we eat. Agricultural food systems, the missing piece of the climate puzzle, will be in focus in Dubai, which will be the first COP to have one day dedicated to food, agriculture and water.

Crucially, food systems are at the epicentre of three global risks: food security; health; and a contributor of one third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Degrading environment and rising temperatures—with associated extreme weather and natural disasters—highlight the inextricable link between food systems and climate change. Agriculture and the destruction of forests together account for more than 20% of total net manmade GHG emissions between 2007 and 2016.

Twin that with the supply chain disruption that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused and the continued economic fallout of the pandemic, which has pushed food prices to all-time highs, food security risk is further exacerbated. The number of people affected by global food insecurity has risen from 135 million in 53 countries in 2019 to 345 in 82 countries by June 2022.

And the problem is not going away. With projections for two billion more people to feed by 2050, at current consumption trends, food security is a rapidly growing risk, despite the fact that farmers have technically been producing enough to feed the projected 10 billion since 2012.

Moreover, with rising prosperity, in countries such as China, Brazil and South Korea, the demand for meat, eggs and dairy is increasing, putting further pressure on land and water resources.

So, what can we do? The 2019 IPCC report titled Climate Change and Land went as far as proposing a largely plant-based diet to free up several million square kilometres of land to use for crops, and, at the same time, cut 0.7 to 8.0 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent produced by livestock by 2050.

But there is a second, and arguably, bigger problem, namely that of food lost and wasted. In 2011, the Global Food Losses and Food Waste report estimated that one-third of the world’s food is wasted every year. This is equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of food.

Not only is this worth almost $1 trillion, but almost more importantly it could feed the additional two billion in expected population growth. This is why the FAO is expected to publish the Loss and Damage and Agrifood Systems – Taking Climate Action Forward report at COP28.

Critically, with a carbon footprint of about 3.3 billion tons of CO2, food waste is a major contributor to climate change. If food loss and food waste were classed as a country, it would rank as the third biggest emitter of GHG emissions in the world, coming after China and the US.

This is why, for the first time at a climate COP, the presidency has made food systems a priority. The United Arab Emirates, which has launched a national action plan to reduce food loss and waste in the country by 50% by 2030, is preparing an ‘Emirates Declaration on Resilient Food Systems, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Action’.

At the fourth National Dialogue on Food Security organised by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment with the National Food Loss and Waste Initiative, Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, said: “…Food and agriculture systems play a pivotal role in this regard, especially with food loss and waste one of the core challenges that humanity must address as a priority”.

The third food-related risk is ‘hidden hunger’.  In 2021, 828 million people were still chronically undernourished, according to the World Health Organisation. This suggests that tackling the growing calorie imbalance between the ‘classically’ starving and the nutritional deficiency of almost two billion obese people is more complex than just redistributing food.

Unhealthy diets are responsible for more than 11 million preventable deaths globally per year and according to more recent FAO data, the annual global cost of poor diets is $9 trillion. With the environmental costs of food production and consumption being a further $3 trillion, this makes up more than 10% of global GDP, and perhaps three to four times the economic value of the entire agricultural sector.

Obviously, reducing post-harvest loss and consumer waste is an important food system ‘fix’, according to the Food Sustainability Index that looks at the three pillars of sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste.

But creating a healthy and sustainable reference diet is trickier and one that the EAT Foundation was established to tackle. It’s first project Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on health diets from sustainable food systems report has become the global science-backed platform for sustainable food system transformation.

So where does the ocean fit into all of this?

As hosts, the United Arab Emirates has outlined four themes for COP28: technology and innovation, inclusion, frontline communities, and finance. The ocean holds solutions to the climate crisis and food security, as well as providing jobs.

Environmentally, the ocean has the potential to absorb 35% of the annual GHG emissions cuts needed by 2050, higher than previous estimates. Specifically, coastal habitats may only make up only 2% of the total ocean area but they account for roughly half of the ‘blue carbon’ sequestered in ocean sediments.

Moreover, seaweed is climate change’s unsung hero and a blue economy business, which according to the World Bank, could be worth $11.8 billion by 2030. Seaweed can absorb carbon emissions, regenerate marine ecosystems, employ women, and is used in biofuels, renewable plastics and alternative proteins.

In terms of food, fish provide more than 4.5 billion people with at least 15 % of their average per capita intake of animal protein, reaching more than 50% in several countries in Asia and Africa. And of the three billion in ocean-related livelihoods, including 80% of tourism which happens on coastal areas, marine fisheries alone employ almost 60 million people, of which roughly 20% are women.

More than that, global aquaculture accounted for approximately 0.49% of anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2017. This is similar in magnitude to the emissions from sheep production alone.

Economically, the ocean is an asset base that was valued at $24 trillion in 2015. Meanwhile, the annual value of goods and services produced from the blue economy is $3 trillion, which makes the ocean equivalent to the seventh largest economy globally.

To realise the ocean’s potential, The Nature Conservancy suggests producers will need $150 to $300 billion in capital expenditures in the next 10 years to build out the infrastructure required to accommodate consumer demand.

But investing one dollar in certain ocean themes can yield at least five dollars in global benefits over the next 30 years. In short, according to the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy report, by investing $2 trillion to $3.7 trillion globally from 2020 to 2050 across four key areas could generate $8.2 trillion to $22.8 trillion in net benefits, a rate of return on investment of 410% to 615%.

In 2020, fisheries and aquaculture production reached an all-time record of 214 million tonnes, worth about $424 billion, but in 2017, industrial-scale fishing has meant that more than 30% of global fish stocks were overfished. And, in terms of food waste, fish and seafood have 35% waste rate; with between 30% and 70% of a single fish, wasted post-harvest.

This is where investing in blue foods can make a difference.

Take technological innovation, one of the COP28 themes. Ocean 14 Capital fund’s investment in The Kingfish Company takes advantage of adapted existing technology, in this case, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) for fishing in deeper waters fishing. Or Ava Ocean, which has pioneered low impact seabed harvesting technology for scallops.

The fund’s investment in Mito increases the production of bivalves, such as clams, which are a protein with one of the lowest-resource intensities globally, and in some cases even a restorative effect on their local environment.

While the fund’s investment in Tilabras allows it to support the sustainable farming of fresh tilapia; and Wellfish and SyAqua are investments focusing on improving the health and welfare of fish stocks and revolutionizing shrimp genetics and alternative feeds to save wild fish stocks, respectively.

In 2016, Dame Ellen MacArthur published a report warning that there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish by 2050, unless the industry cleans up its act. Today, ocean plastic has investment potential. Bureo, for example, turns fishing net pollution into recycled raw materials used by brands such as Patagonia, Toyota, and Trek, while AION guides customers to shift their plastic waste challenges into valuable solutions.

Blue foods alone have the capacity to contribute to SDG2: Zero Hunger by providing 13.6 million tonnes more seafood by 2050; contribute to SDG8: Decent Work & Economic Growth through export revenue and livelihoods for 800 million people; address the obesity crisis as part of SDG3: Good Health & Wellbeing by providing essential nutrients; and, in addition, global aquaculture can reduce the carbon footprint of protein production, so supporting SDG13: Climate Action, and the agenda of COP28.

With an ocean-related focus, many of the World Economic Forum’s risks can be mitigated and almost every one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals can be financed. So as COP28 draws to a close in Dubai, let’s remember that the ocean is our best ally in the climate crisis.