Three billion people rely on blue food for vital nutrients and protein, and global demand is rapidly growing. Many studies assume increasing populations and rising income to be the main drivers of demand, but those analyses treat blue food as a homogenous “fish” category and overlook patterns and changes in consumption across the vast diversity of fish and shellfish. To meet increasing demand for blue food—and support sustainable and fair food systems in the process—it’s critical to understand how different factors shape blue food consumption around the world. However, data are woefully lacking.
This paper begins the critical work of filling that data gap by highlighting how and where blue food demand is changing over time, not simply if it is expanding. The analysis takes into account how geography, culture and dietary preferences shape demand patterns across national, regional and global levels. Results reveal a more robust estimate of how blue food demand will climb by midcentury, highlighting the need for policies that support sustainable growth in production while remaining true to the many ways people eat and rely on blue food.
Based on available data, global blue food demand is expected to roughly double by 2050, which will have widespread environmental and social implications.
The biggest change in blue food consumption has occurred where it has become more affordable and accessible — improving availability for lower-income communities. At lower income levels, price is a major determinant of demand. As incomes rise, preferences become more important.
Examining which species are eaten and where reveals distinct regional patterns and preferences. For example, there is high consumption of freshwater fish in China and of small pelagic fish in Ghana and Peru based on where the fish are widely available, affordable and historically established in cuisines.
Because blue food production varies by region, trade is critical for meeting demand worldwide. For some countries, rising demand may be satisfied by importing blue foods. In other countries, exporting blue foods provides an economic opportunity but may also lead to a reduction of blue food consumption at home.
The greatest increase in future demand will likely come from aquaculture, especially in Asia, with China dominating. Meeting future demand will depend on the continued development and expansion of sustainable aquaculture systems.
Current understanding of blue food consumption is largely based on production data, instead of data on what people are actually eating around the world, risking faulty assumptions. Tracking local consumption patterns and preferences can inform more accurate and sustainable food policies.
The nutrition and environmental impacts of blue food consumption also depend on preferences for other foods, like beef and poultry, in national diets. Decision-makers should think holistically about demand to integrate blue foods into broader food policies.