Activity Report

The future of food: looking at countries and the fish on people’s tables

Old man and the tuna by Christoph Rupprecht (CC BY 2.0)

 Did you know that China is the biggest fishing nation in the world? “Oh, it’s not Japan?” some people may ask. Indeed, there was a time when Japan led the world in fishing, but that was decades ago. Since its fishing heyday, Japan’s fish and seafood yield has gradually declined so that it now ranks at number 8 in the world.

 Currently in 2015, China is by far the top fishing nation, with a yield that is becoming close to half of the global total. China’s fishing industry is distinctive for its high ratio of fish farming, and especially for fresh water fish. Statistics show that in China, the yield of farmed fresh water fish is much higher than the yield of seafood caught in the open sea, a situation that is very different from where there is a strong preference for fish from the ocean.
 The type of freshwater fish that is farmed the most in China are of the carp family, Cyprinidae, and production has been constantly rising at an average rate of 7.0% a year (1990-2012), contributing greatly to the overall increase in China’s fish production. There is also another variety of fish for which production has been rising at an even faster rate of 13.0% a year (also 1990-2012), and that is tilapia. Tilapia currently ranks at number 6 for China’s fresh water fish production yield.*

Tilapia depicted on wall paintings in Thebes, the capital of ancient Egypt
Central Garden Pool in the Garden of Nebamun’s Tomb Painting, British Museum, late 18th Dynasty, circa 1350 BCE (Photo in public domain)

 Tilapia is a species of the Cichlidae family of fish that is native to the Nile River basin in Africa. It has been known since ancient Egyptian times that Tilapia has very high reproductive capability, which is the reason that it has been so popular to farm. Tilapia is also a quite tasty, which of course is another major reason for its popularity, and China has been continually increasing production of this foreign species.

 In stark contrast, Japan’s fishery yield has been dwindling, and the self-sufficiency rate for fish and seafood is now about 50% (2013 statistics, based on production value). This means that half of the fish consumed in Japan today are imported. In the seafood section at Japanese supermarkets, eel from China, shrimp from SE Asia, and salmon from Chile are standard items. The restaurant and catering industry, including convenience stores, offer mackerel from Norway and horse mackerel from Holland. In one way, we could consider this as Japan upholding its traditional food culture, but actually, it also shows the stark reality of this aging nation, which has shifting from catching its own seafood to procuring it from abroad.

Fresh fish in the supermarket by David Pursehouse (CC BY 2.0)

 This symbolic example of China and Japan’s fishing industry is very telling about the very different situations in these two countries.
China is continuing to increase its production of tilapia, seemingly unconcerned about invasion by foreign species. Rather, it actually makes a strong statement about a nation trying to procure on its own a sufficient protein source for its 1.3 billion citizens. Also, the way China places importance on producers and gives them priority shows the nation’s future-oriented stance.

Wangfujing Food Market by Lori Branham (CC BY 2.0)

 Japan on the other hand, is trying to get its usual staples of salmon and mackerel by importing instead of fishing. The focus of Japanese society has completely shifted from producers to consumers. Already, a quarter of Japan’s population is of the non-producing 65 years and older age, and it will soon be a third, so this shift is inevitable. The elderly people who have become pure consumers seek just the convenience and comfort in their current daily lives, and everyone has complete freedom whether to choose expensive seafood from the coasts of Japan or cheap imports. When considering just food, China is future-oriented while consumer-centric Japan has its gaze fixed on the present.

Unaju (grilled eel on rice) by baron valium (CC BY 2.0)

 What is KAITEKI for food? What will be the situation surrounding food in the future? What is certain at least, is that the answers to these questions will differ between different countries. As we saw above, every country has its own situation and outlook. It is a matter of course that traditional food culture should be respected, but there are also so many factors to consider such as population dynamics and national policy.

stead tilapia by stu_spivack (CC BY 2.0)

 We at The KAITEKI Institute are working on the challenge of the future of food by taking as broad a perspective as possible in order to find universal solutions that can be more generally applied in the world. Taking the fishing industry, there is the issue of water. It is an essential element for all aquatic life. Thus, how can we maintain an optimal water environment to procure enough food for the continually growing global population? What water environment would be KAITEKI for fish, people, and all living creatures, as well as for the Earth? These are just some of the fundamental questions we hope to find answers to with our studies in the theme of water of food.

* Source:包特力根白乙, 中国罗非鱼养殖产业发展及市场前景, 安徽农业科学, 33, (2014), 15-17

September 10, 2015