Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions leads two-year project to evaluate the potential of blue foods in climate adaptation and mitigation strategies
The movement to build sustainable food systems in the face of climate change has long focused on land-based crops and livestock, but a new project led by the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions will spotlight overlooked solutions in the water. Fisheries and aquaculture, or blue foods, comprise thousands of species that are caught or cultivated in the planet’s oceans, rivers, and lakes, and offer vast opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of food systems, which currently emit 30-40% of global emissions.
In partnership with WorldFish, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, and CARE USA, the project team will synthesize existing research to help international climate negotiators assess how blue foods can contribute to low-carbon food systems. The research findings can also shed light on certain high-emission blue food species that have large environmental footprints, exacerbating environmental pressures. As climate change increasingly threatens food systems with more powerful storms, frequent droughts, and shifting fish stocks, rapidly reducing emissions is key to protecting food and nutrition security while reducing environmental footprints both on land and in the water.
“We know that many blue food species can have low-carbon footprints and that climate change can place blue food contributions at risk,” said Michelle Tigchelaar, a research scientist at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. “Now, we have an opportunity to work closely with countries and local partners to spotlight successes and ensure decision-makers have the insights they need to implement adaptation and mitigation solutions.”
Building on the Blue Food Assessment, including research illuminating climate risks each country will face and environmental pressures from blue food production, the project team will map how blue foods could contribute most to low-carbon food systems. For example, shifting diets to low-impact species like bivalves or small pelagic fish, or reducing blue food loss and waste, could support climate-resilient solutions. This analysis will take into account how these contributions can promote food and nutrition security, sustainable livelihoods, and gender equity, and will provide a crucial foundation for decision-makers seeking to develop policies and programs that capitalize on the potential of blue foods.
The team will also convene researchers from around the globe to develop scientific guidelines for how all countries can include blue foods in their Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans. These plans translate national commitments into action and are key components of the Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. These guidelines will bring new insights to international policy dialogues, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP), the forum for climate negotiations that produced the landmark Paris Agreement. They will also underpin the efforts of groups like the Aquatic Blue Food Coalition, which aligns more than two dozen governments and NGOs on blue food goals.
“One of the Coalition’s missions is to support countries, or groups of countries, that want to integrate blue foods into their food systems and policymaking,” explained Karly Kelso, Director of Climate Resilient Food Systems at the Environmental Defense Fund and Secretariat of the Coalition. “Momentum is growing. This research can help mobilize action to influence COP28 and COP29, as well as national planning.”
In addition to developing global guidelines, the research team will work on five case studies focusing on countries from Asia, North America, and the tropical Pacific region to tailor the guidelines to local contexts and spotlight initial successes.
Countries around the world face different challenges as they work to address climate change and food security. For instance, in Indonesia, flooding, increasing temperature, and sea-level rise, becoming more common due to climate change, put both rice crops and fisheries at risk. However, Indonesia's extensive mangrove forests can potentially provide crucial adaptation and mitigation opportunities by sequestering carbon and offering coastal protection and nursery habitat for juvenile fish.
Meanwhile, in countries with increasing demand for blue food, such as Ghana, boosting low-carbon production practices could present promising solutions. Ghana’s recent Aquaculture Development Plan aims to increase aquaculture production by 136 percent by 2027. Targeted breeding of low-carbon species or ensuring deforestation-free fish feed could help reduce emissions for the growing sector. By working at country and local levels, the project team can surface valuable insights on how sustainable solutions can be scaled up in other regions, as well as lessons for negotiators at international conferences such as the COP on how to bring blue foods into food and climate actions.
“We’re excited to co-develop research questions with local decision-makers, stakeholders, and scientists that can shed light on place-based policy needs, potential win-wins, and opportunities to ensure more equitable futures,” said Moushumi Chaudhury, Senior Technical Advisor on Climate Justice at CARE USA. “Countries have a chance to be climate-smart as they consider the ways blue foods can contribute to national climate, food, nature, and social policies.”
This work is made possible by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.