Researchers have compared 10 different aquaculture production systems in China and found that ecological intensity can help the industry meet its goals for food production and environmental sustainability. Their paper. which was published in its most recent edition. Aquaculture Reviews,Ecological intensification, as it is known, is a method of increasing food production that incorporates ecosystem services and human inputs during the farm cycle in order to increase overall efficiency and productivity.
This research shows how aquaculture producers could use different ecological intensification techniques to maximize their farms strengths and make the most of their natural resources, regardless of their production system. If the approach works, producers can use natural processes to improve outputs while minimizing environmental damage.
A snapshot of China’s aquaculture sector
According to FAO data, China is the world’s largest aquafood producer, contributing 58 percent of global aquatic products in 2018. China’s aquaculture output in 2018 reached 47.56 millions metric tonnes, even though seaweed was not included in the production figures. Current projections suggest that China’s aquaculture production could grow by 36.5 percent in 2030, compared to 2016.
But, this increased output comes at a high price. Intensifying production has caused multiple environmental challenges such as pollution, land degradation, and disease outbreaks. This makes aquaculture’s future uncertain, and has led to calls for more stringent environmental protection policies. The industry is under pressure to reduce its energy, water, land, fertiliser and feed inputs, while increasing its production volume. It must find a way of meeting its food production targets in an eco-friendly manner to maintain its competitive edge.
The logic behind ecological intensification
China’s aquaculture production system is diverse. It includes small-scale fish farms that focus on low-value species, food security, and high-tech large-scale operations that produce fish to luxury markets.
Researchers tend to group production systems according to the feeding strategy they use, the location they operate in, and the environment in which they operate. There is no single technique that will help the sector achieve its production and environmental goals. Potential indicators of social, economic, and environmental sustainability all have interdependencies. How underlying indicators such as land use, freshwater consumption and economic growth are combined will determine the sustainability of an aquaculture venture.
Ecological intensification is a key reason why it could gain popularity. It accounts for different production methods, their varying ecological footprints and input costs, and their sustainability potential. The method allows farmers the freedom to develop individual strategies to reach their sustainability and productivity goals. They don’t have to be focused on one priority. It also recognizes the trade-offs that must be made between efficiency, resource conservation, environmental protection, food safety, and social and economic development when devising intensification plans. This holistic approach considers the system’s footprints and limitations. It also identifies unique ways to combine human inputs and natural processes that will regulate production environments.
Making ecological intensification a reality
China’s aquaculture sector is still growing due to increased farming efforts. To achieve high production volumes, producers are increasing their external inputs of energy as well as pelleted feeds. They also increase stocking densities. Although this has produced a staggering 7.5 percent growth rate in the last 30 years however, conventional intensification is creating greater environmental risks and raising overall farming costs. Researchers suggest that policymakers create targeted development plans to support the sustainability of different aquaculture systems. This could include:
- Establishing certification programs for aquatic foods made from non-fed aquaculture production. Producers who are following organic aquaculture rules could be eligible for subsidies from policymakers. These systems could be supported and certified to grow and produce more economically competitive food products by being subsidised and certified non-fed aquaculture.
- Invest more in aquaculture research. High-quality information regarding the carrying capacity and management of aquaculture water ecosystems, as well as the production potential of aquaculture zones, will be a key to the industry’s future development.
- Preferential loans should be offered to farmers who use ecological intensification as a production method. This should be in conjunction with policies that encourage ecological intensification in feed aquaculture, including nearshore and in recirculation system ponds.
- Promote aquaculture projects in areas that have lower land-use impacts. The policymakers could provide loans and subsidies to encourage ventures in waterlogged salt alkali environments, paddy farms, or offshore environments.
- Integrate aquaculture activities and tourism, education, renewable power generation (like sun and wind energy) This would allow aquaculture projects to achieve both their economic and environmental sustainability goals.
- Unless closed facilities that are free from pollution risks are established and adopted, fed aquaculture will be phased out in large inland waterways. This would help to protect and possibly restore inland water systems.
China’s aquaculture industry wants high production outputs, minimal waste discharges and a lower carbon footprint. Researchers believe that China can achieve this production goal if it increases its non-fossil fuel energy use and adopts ecological intensification. This will allow it to maintain its position as the world’s leader in aquaculture.