The Doorstep: Sustainability vs. Food Security in Our Oceans, with Duke University's Martin Smith
April 23, 2021
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to this edition of The Doorstep. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, welcoming you all on this day where President Biden and Vice-President Harris are welcoming over 40 countries to a global climate change summit. We are going to talk climate change and oceans, and we are welcoming today Professor Martin Smith from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.
So excited to have you here speaking with us, especially because of your research on oceans including fisheries, marine ecosystems, seafood markets, and coastal climate adaptation. So much to talk about.
I do want to start out saying to our audience that what we try to do here at The Doorstep is localize global issues. The ocean is 71 percent of our planet. There is nothing more global and life spanning than that; 127 million Americans live in a coastal city, including me and including Nick. I don't know where you are, Marty.
MARTIN SMITH: I'm in Durham, North Carolina, not a coastal city.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Not a coastal city, but still we are all affected by this globally. The ocean is such a big part of our lives. We feel here at The Doorstep that we should be talking about issues, especially two specific ones that I want to start out with—Nick, I think you and I talked about this—the nutrition aspect because the pandemic really brought to light the food scarcity issue and the fact that we need to look at how we are going to feed the globe and how this impacts us on a market level and what we are eating. Certainly one of things we should be eating more is fish.
MARTIN SMITH: Let's just jump right in with a tough, loaded question.
First of all, thank you so much for having me. It is wonderful to be a part of this podcast. I also appreciate that you framed the importance of the oceans right upfront in the way that I like to frame it. It is 70-plus percent of the planet. A very large percentage of our population lives in coastal areas, and these areas are very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. So I think you are absolutely right to start off in that way. In my world of economics working on the oceans is kind of a niche area, but I always like to remind people that oceans are a big part of the planet.
So let's just jump right in to the first question you are asking about, the role of oceans in human nutrition. It is absolutely critical. Globally where does our food come from? We tend to add up things like where do the calories come from and where does the protein come from. By that scale protein coming from the marine environment in total is relatively modest. More animal protein comes from terrestrial livestock like chickens, beef, pork, and so forth. Of course, most of our calories come from grain crops and row crops, things like corn, wheat, and so forth.
But seafood plays a very important role because it is highly nutritious. It is often a lean protein. It is a source of important macronutrients like omega-3 fatty acids that we have heard a lot about in combating heart disease and other nutrition-based diseases.
Something that is probably underappreciated in the United States, seafood contributes important micronutrients. There are a lot of vitamins and minerals that are in high concentrations in seafood that are critical to human development that are a huge portion of those micronutrients for many seafood consumers around the world.
Those things are important for Americans, but they are not nearly as important as they are for a lot of people in coastal areas in low-income countries that do not actually get a lot of animal protein from other sources and have far fewer sources of those micronutrients in their diets. That is one area where seafood is globally very much underappreciated.
TATIANA SERAFIN: What are some things that either the private or public sectors can do to increase the knowledge that this is a product that we should be focused on, especially as we look to cut our carbon emissions? We all know that cattle is bad, and yet we are still so meat and potatoes. I think this got highlighted in the pandemic when people were rushing to the shelves, and they were empty. Did you see fish stock as empty as the chicken and the beef?
MARTIN SMITH: This is an important question. Honestly, we don't know the extent of the effects of the pandemic on supply chain disruptions in food in general and in fisheries and seafood in particular. We do have a lot of anecdotal reports of these supply chain disruptions, and there is a sort of paradoxical aspect of it. During the pandemic, if you are somebody who fishes for a living, being out on the water is as safe a place as you could possibly be. But, of course, selling that fish in the markets relies on these supply chains, so any kind of disruption meant that it did not necessarily always make sense for people who are fishing for a living to go out and catch the fish that they otherwise would be catching. So I think that is certainly part of all of this.
But when you talk about emptying shelves it highlights attention in global supply chains in general, because the flip side of what you are talking about is that those shelves filled back up very fast. What is miraculous about the pandemic is how quickly the food system actually responded and how these very elaborate global supply chains that stock supermarkets in the United States, Europe, and other wealthy countries, but the same kinds of supermarkets are emerging increasingly in developing countries. So those global supply chains, yes, they were disrupted, but they responded quickly.
This is where you get right to the heart of the tension. If you are somebody who is relying heavily on those kinds of supply chains, you are very vulnerable to those disruptions. In my family, we had the benefit of having a community-supported agriculture subscription, so our vegetables kept coming, even though there were some issues with getting food from the supermarket in the near term.
If you are someone who gets their fish protein from your local lake or your river or you live on the coast and maybe you are a fisher who sells some of that for your livelihood but also consumes a lot of it and uses some of that for the subsistence for your family, the pandemic did not disrupt that activity locally. So that was an opportunity for somebody who might otherwise have had supply chains shut off to be more resilient.
But when you think about something like climate change, it is going to take those fish resources and move them and maybe degrade them overall. Maybe ocean warming will lead to fewer fish in certain areas, but it will also move some of the particular fish that are in certain areas as they migrate in response to climate changes in the ocean. So being overly dependent on the local is a real problem for climate change, but having some connection to the local is a real benefit for dealing with the resilience of a shock like the pandemic.
That to me is the tension. How do we find policies, how do we facilitate some kind of middle ground there that can take advantage of both of what these two very different parts of our food system have to offer?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is a great segue into a larger question that I would like to ask. Our sister program here at the Carnegie Council, the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, has been trying to get a handle with the oceans on how you address essentially the complex governance issues, the tension between local and national actors and international regulations. Do you see any types of processes for governance of these types of issues—management of fish stocks and things like that—or anything else that can be effective, and what actors or stakeholders do you think may be most critical for some sort of effective regulatory regime for the oceans?
MARTIN SMITH: This is tremendously important. The starting place is that not all of the news is bad news. One of the things that is probably underappreciated globally is that most seafood production in the oceans is actually within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of countries. For listeners who are not familiar with that, essentially in the 1970s, largely due to Cold War kinds of politics, globally there was an agreement that nations would have a right to assert jurisdiction over their marine resources out to 200 miles. Because that mostly contains continental shelves and the places where we have upwellings of nutrients that lead to marine productivity, that is actually where most of our fish come from, most of the fish and shellfish that are part of the marine products that come into the global food system. But it is not everything.
Within those 200 miles you also have fish stocks that move in and out of them. Some of those move across into other nations' exclusive economic zones, which creates important and challenging bilateral and multilateral negotiations over who gets how much of the fish, and sometimes they traverse through the high seas, so highly migratory fish stocks like tunas and swordfish go in and out of the high seas and into and out of different countries' jurisdictions. That is a little bit of the global landscape of jurisdiction.
Within different countries you see some countries doing a very good job and some countries doing a not very good job of asserting jurisdiction and governing within those exclusive economic zones. I think it is important to highlight that the United States is a country that does an incredibly good job by global standards of sustainably managing its fish stocks within its exclusive economic zone. It's not perfect. There are lots of places where the United States could improve, but by global standards our rate of overfishing and our rate of overfished stocks within our jurisdiction as a country are actually quite good. We have turned the tide very much on overfishing.
But we also have the advantage as a country of being a wealthy country that has an elaborate regulatory system and lots of income that supports a tax base that can pay for all of that. Lower-income countries don't have the kind of state capacity that we have in the United States. Think about how much space is out there in the ocean even within that 200 miles and how hard it is to regulate and enforce in those areas. A poor country doesn't have the United States Coast Guard, and that creates huge challenges in the global food system.
That is a lot of what non-profit organizations have tried to figure out: Are there ways to assert governance in parts of the world that may not always have the state capacity to do it the way that countries like the United States, Japan, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and so forth do, countries that have the ability to govern with what we would think of as traditional regulatory instruments? How can we get those kinds of outcomes in other parts of the world?
That has led to a lot of interest in things like ecolabels for seafood and things like the Marine Stewardship Council. Can you find ways of certifying fisheries that are doing a good job and then use the power of consumers and their desire to pay a little extra for sustainability, and can you leverage that to get better outcomes in other parts of the world?
The unfortunate reality is that we do not have a lot of good news to report about that. I would say the news is fairly mixed. The technologies that we have available now can help in this global governance challenge. One of the most promising technologies right now is using blockchain technology so that you can trace fish all the way from where it was caught, with what gear, and potentially even by whom, what particular individual fisher caught it. You could trace it all the way through the supply chain to where it was processed, to where it was exported, where it came into a country, and how it ended up at your supermarket or your fish counter, wherever that was. Blockchain technology creates the possibility of a very high level of traceability.
If you have a very high level of traceability, the potential for consumers and other actors—nonprofits or possibly even just large companies that are interested in behaving in a sustainable way, the large retail chains, for instance—you create the possibility for those actors to assert more influence on the sustainability outcomes. That is something I would say is still unfolding in the seafood space.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think what is interesting, and it dovetails with research that we have done at Carnegie Council saying that consumers are willing to pay extra if they know that their products are from places that have parallel principles, from democratic and human rights oriented and to your point, sustainable practices, we found in our surveys that Americans do want to see that. It is just a matter of how do we make it happen?
I love this idea of blockchain. I have to say every time I go buy fish I don't know. I read the little sign, and I hope that it's true. I hope the cod came from Alaska. I don't know. I love this idea.
What is the cost of making that happen, and who is doing it? Is there a billionaire that loves the ocean and is trying to save it? On the last episode we had a big discussion about how billionaires love space and are trying to save it. Is there anybody, aside from small not-for-profits or nongovernmental organizations?
MARTIN SMITH: There are some big dollars in the foundation world that have invested heavily in things like ecolabels and the Marine Stewardship Council, so I do think there is a role for that kind of philanthropy in all of this. But on some level there are limits to what consumers are willing to pay for this attribute.
One thing that sometimes gets lost in this discussion a little bit is that, yes, a lot of consumers care about sustainability and a lot of wealthier consumers might be willing to pay even more for that, but on some level people also care about the taste of the food. They care about the health attributes, which may or may not coincide with the ecological sustainability of the product, and they care about things that are unrelated entirely, like the convenience, the product form. People in the United States want to eat nice filets. That willingness to pay for the convenient product form that is the way a lot of people are used to consuming fish overwhelms what they are willing to pay extra for that sustainability attribute.
I also want to turn this around and think a little more from the Global South perspective. When we are sitting here thinking about, okay, we have done a pretty good job improving our fisheries in the United States, and we are worried about consuming fish from other parts of the world that maybe are not doing as good a job in sustainability terms—and for good reason—it's not necessarily the priority of the Global South. We think about sustainability as being in the forefront of the discussion as Americans who are concerned about the oceans. In parts of the world that are developing economies, seafood is a part of food security and that is at the forefront. That means that it is serving this critical role in terms of human nutrition and basic macronutrient availability like protein but also those micronutrients that we talked about. And the ability to fish is serving an important function as a livelihood.
Of course, we have livelihoods in the United States. There are people who fish commercially for a living, and that is important too. But the scale of how many people actually fish as part of their livelihood in countries like Indonesia is much, much greater. So, yes, sustainability is important, but there are other things that are of critical importance as well, and sustainability isn't necessarily at the top of the list.
TATIANA SERAFIN: How do you engage then the Global South? How are areas we can engage with? I know Biden has come up with his "30 by 30" goal, 30 percent of our lands and oceans to conservation, even though acknowledging that we are at the forefront. How do we take on that leadership role around the world?
MARTIN SMITH: I think it is a fine line because we certainly don't want to be paternalistic, and we know from other fields in environmental economics—broadly speaking my field is called environmental economics—that there is a tendency for countries as they get wealthier for pollution to increase for a while as they industrialize, and then as they continue to get wealthier the economies transition more toward service economies. Also that wealth gets piped into regulating pollution and some more pollution control is installed, so you end up with what is typically an inverted-U shape. You typically have a range of development where you have increasing pollution followed by decreasing pollution, and that is what we call the environmental Kuznets curve.
I think there is a fine line between us jumping in saying, "Hey, you in the developing world should be doing this," and thinking about what is actually helpful for the long-term well-being of the whole planet and the societies that are a lot less well-off economically than we are. I think that is the fine line there.
That means that there can be a number of areas where technological assistance is useful. There could be a number of areas where we can potentially support, maybe even financially, effective governance, but we also have to confront the reality that—
This is what keeps me up at night when we talk about these issues. There are times when absolutely in order to get more fish in the long run you need to dial back your fishing in the short run. That is rule number one in fisheries. But what do you do when dialing that back means some people go hungry? They cannot continue to do what they do ad infinitum because eventually the fish will be gone. But what about the short run? How do you get somebody who needs that fish to eat tomorrow to stop fishing, or should you even get them to stop fishing? That is what keeps me up at night.
I think that is an area where targeted development aid is important. We need to find a way to feed people so that they can make actual sacrifices. And I don't just literally mean give them food. I mean sustain people's whole livelihoods in a transition toward a more sustainable future. That is something that we have not done much of. We have not dealt with that problem. This is the extent to which the sustainability emphasis and the food security emphasis talk past each other.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That to me seems quite critical, your last point about this nexus. Just this week The Wall Street Journal discussed in great detail this question of food security on the oceans and the question of richer countries or large fishing countries poaching or stealing or removing fish that might be used in other countries in Asia, Latin America, or particularly Africa. But also President Joe Biden is unveiling very ambitious targets for environment, for climate, and for emissions. We have this discussion about should we be using this as a form of environmental great-power competition with China, not for geopolitical ends, but essentially to try to get China to also take greater steps in moving forward in this transition.
Do you think that we can reach some sort of accord among the countries of the world where there is an agreement essentially or an acceptance of this point that you have made that we have to find a way to guarantee a certain level of food and economic security in order to be able to get this transition forward, or is the risk that we are going to run that once these measures become politically inexpedient—because food prices go up or standards of living are impacted—that we are not going to see movement? Is there anything that you have been seeing from your perch that would lead you to either optimism or pessimism on that?
MARTIN SMITH: This is important. I am fairly optimistic about this for one reason, and that reason is aquaculture. I will get to that in a second.
I want to provide a little context here. We think about the competing issues with sustainability and food security. In this global space of countries that are going and fishing in other areas, including on the high seas, but also countries that have access agreements off the coast of West Africa, for instance, a lot of that is somewhat of a legacy of state-sponsored distant-water fishing.
We are still dealing with a lot of Cold War legacies here. With the Soviet Union and subsequently China and even the United States there was a lot of state sponsorship of building up capacity of fleets to be able to fish in distant waters, and a lot of that capacity is still out there. To some extent that was about: How do you grab up resources to support your version of the right economy? Competition for distant-water resources was part of that Cold War legacy.
The reason I am optimistic about everything in terms of aquaculture is that now roughly half of the seafood that is consumed globally comes from farmed fish and shellfish and other products. A lot of that is freshwater and not marine protein, but in the seafood market space we lump these things together. So we think of food that comes from aquatic environments, whether it is marine or coastal estuarine environments or purely freshwater environments, we call all of that "seafood," because in the marketplace they compete directly with each other. So somebody who is considering buying a trout might also very well be considering buying some cod or some haddock. "Seafood" is the umbrella for all of that.
Aquaculture, as I mentioned, is about half of the global seafood production now, but it accounts for basically all of the growth in global seafood production for the last 30 years. Global seafood coming from capture fisheries—when we think capture fisheries, think a boat goes out on the water with a trawl net and catches fish, brings them back, and sells them; that is what we think about the iconic capture fishery—basically leveled off in terms of global production in the mid to late 1980s.
Yes, there is some room for growth there if we can do a better job managing fisheries, but the room for growth is relatively small compared to the fact that aquaculture has been all of the growth in the last 30 years, and it has led to a situation that people find kind of surprising. Would it occur to you that in real terms, inflation-adjusted terms, that fish prices are no higher today than they were 30 years ago when the total production of seafood from the oceans leveled off? And this is in a world where we have seen continued population growth and we have seen dramatic growth in per capita income at an average level globally. So we have seen all this massive increase in demand, and prices are no higher. The only reason that is the case is aquaculture. That is the simple reason. I teach this as an illustration of econ 101: the demand grew, shifted way out, and the supply shifted out enough to keep prices basically stable.
Why am I optimistic about aquaculture? We have been farming fish for millennia as humans, but we have been farming fish in a sophisticated way of domesticating them and selectively breeding them only for a handful of decades. As humanity we did not get into the business of selectively breeding fish as livestock until the 1960s, and even then we barely started poking into that.
Now we realize that with hundreds and thousands of years of experience with terrestrial livestock, we can realize incredible gains by applying modern breeding techniques, modern scientific knowledge using genetic modification, gene editing, and things like that. There are all kinds of possibilities for more efficient production of fish if we go down that road.
It does not have to all be in the form of sophisticated molecular biology and using genetic techniques. A lot of it is also just the experience of how to build a good pen to farm your salmon. We are a lot better at that now than the first attempts beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. If you take that same kind of progression where you keep getting better at these things by learning from doing and you apply it across this wide range of possibilities of fish that we can be farming, both in marine environments and in freshwater environments, the possibilities for growth are quite substantial.
It is my hope that all of that will help to take some of that pressure off the places that struggle most with governance. I do not think that will solve all of our problems, but it is one reason for optimism about problems that sometimes feel fundamentally unsolvable.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think you make some super-excellent points. I really love the optimism.
I do want to ask about this Cold War legacy because we have been looking at in all of our episodes this leftover—even in the administration—people who think about the Cold War as the framework for governance and diplomacy. How do we move past this?
What are you hearing from your students, from Gen Z? What do they think? I want to throw this question in. I love Gen Z. I want to see them take more ownership of making decisions and take ownership of your optimism even and move it forward. What are you seeing on that end?
MARTIN SMITH: That is a hard question to answer. I find that as I have gone through my career, the older I get the less familiar my students are with the Cold War world that I grew up in. I grew up doing nuclear war drills, like get under your desk, which I always thought was absurd, but I grew up in San Diego sandwiched between the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the Miramar Air Force Base, and one of the largest naval installations in the whole United States in San Diego. Why am I getting under my desk? What is this going to do?
For me the Cold War was so front-and-center in everything, and yet my students are only vaguely aware of that world order. I don't know what the answer is in terms of this transition to a different form of global governance. This is pushing the limits of what I can say from my expertise as an economist who works on the oceans.
There is a story that I like to tell people that says something about all of this and how much confidence we should have in our economic system. The whole origin of modern natural resource economics, the idea of using capital theory to study how best to use our natural resources, which is the centerpiece of how economists approach things like fisheries, all grew out of initially what was President Truman's Paley Commission that led to the founding of a think tank called Resources for the Future, which I am sure you are familiar with, in Washington, DC.
The Paley Commission was ostensibly worried that, yes, we have the right economic system, but what if we run out of mineral resources and other key natural resources to fuel our market economy, and that that is the basis on which the Soviets overwhelm us—the United States—who otherwise have the right system? This idea that there is this "weak link" in the market economy is the rationale for this explosion of interest in "what does natural resource scarcity mean?" and "how consequential is it?" I think that whole experience is one of thinking with humility about how our way of doing things is the right way of doing things or being humble about that and being open to other approaches.
I know that is not a very good answer to your question, but I feel like there has to be some kind of humility about how the world order could unfold if we are going to make significant transitions in how we govern the oceans.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is going to be quite interesting given that we have the meeting going on today, the virtual summit of world leaders talking about a number of these issues and that question of governance and also of commitments that will be made I think is going to be very front-and-center.
TATIANA SERAFIN: As we look forward to hearing what is coming out of the Biden-Harris White House today and tomorrow, we want to thank you so much for joining us, Marty. This has been such a wonderful conversation, and we want to ask you back maybe to rate how the Biden-Harris administration is doing on oceans and ocean policy in the coming months. We would love to have you back. Thank you so much.
MARTIN SMITH: Thank you for having me, and I will be following that with great interest, as you might imagine.