Octopus drying in a restaurant in Gythio (Greece). Photo credit (Cristina Pita).

Study shows how octopus, cuttlefish and squid can help to deliver food security

Eliminating human hunger, achieving food security, and improving the health, nutrition and wellbeing of the world’s population is directly linked to biodiversity loss due to the detrimental impacts that food systems can have on the natural environment. Food systems include the collection of activities linking production to consumption across the food supply chain, therefore reversing biodiversity loss depends on societies transforming the ways food is produced to achieve more sustainable food systems. Most food systems research has focused on the agricultural sector, but the seafood sector is also critical. 

Cephalopods (cuttlefish, octopus, squids) provide benefits to nature and people. They are important predators within marine ecosystems, support some fisheries as prey species, and are a culturally and nutritionally important seafood source that can support human food security. Harvesting cephalopods in sustainable and equitable ways requires understanding the links between ecosystems that cephalopods inhabit, food system policies and human wellbeing, which does not appear to have been previously studied. 

Worldwide, cephalopod fisheries have rapidly expanded over the last 50 years, from approximately 99,100 tonnes in 1970 to 374,200 tonnes in 2020, and have moved into new fishing areas to match growing market demand. The abundance of cephalopod populations fluctuates naturally and their availability is significantly affected by environmental effects such as climate change, which increase uncertainty around the sustainability of cephalopod fisheries and the availability of cephalopods as a food resource. Market preferences for particular cephalopods also impacts on food system dynamics in ways which are poorly understood. There is an urgent need to exploit cephalopod fisheries in a sustainable way and to understand how the cephalopod food system works. 

A new article published in People and Nature addresses the need to better understand the cephalopod food system by exploring the connections between nature’s contributions to people (ecosystem services), food system policies and human wellbeing. To do this, a group of eleven authors led by a team in the EqualSea Lab at CRETUS, University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain) conducted a global literature review, analysing scientific studies related to market drivers that influence three market sectors of the cephalopod food system: catch, trade and consumption. Key findings of this review revealed nine dynamic traits and 29 ‘cephalopod market drivers’ within the cephalopod food system that link the ecosystems which cephalopods inhabit to the catch, trade and consumption of cephalopod products. They also identified important value chain actors; supply chain components; cultural, provisioning and supporting services provided by cephalopods (e.g. material and non-material indicators of human wellbeing), and key policies and market interventions affecting cephalopod food system dynamics.

The authors drew on the concept of nature’s contributions to people to interpret these research findings. The IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) conceptual framework is a social-ecological model of the complex interactions between human society (that explicitly considers diverse scientific disciplines, stakeholders, and knowledge systems, including indigenous and local knowledge) and the natural world, consisting of six interlinked elements: nature; nature’s contributions to people; anthropogenic assets; institutions, governance and other indirect drivers of change; direct drivers of change, and good quality of life.The authors were able to link each of the nine food system traits identified in the study to a corresponding interlinked element of the IPBES framework to understand links between market demand, policies and processes regarding cephalopods, and associated impacts on cephalopod populations and their ecosystems with the aim of driving the necessary transformations towards sustainable food systems in the future. 

As a result the authors created a novel market-based adaptation of the IPBES conceptual framework which they call the ‘cephalopod food system framework’ (Figure 1). The framework provides a simplified overview of the dynamics of cephalopod food systems depicting multi-dimensional relationships and feedback loops between cephalopod ecosystem services, fisheries and other institutions, anthropogenic assets, nature’s contributions to people and good quality of life. These are linked to the political realms of commerce and sustainable food systems through a proposed policy landscape which the authors recommend should integrate national and regional pathways towards food systems that are resilient, equitable, sustainable and inclusive/accessible but also healthy and nutritious, respecting planetary boundaries, cultural traditions and including the most vulnerable and local coastal communities.

The research provides an important contribution for the global diagnosis of opportunities and constraints regarding the role of cephalopods in transformations towards a resilient and more diversified seafood production system. This landscape is highly complex in terms of interactions between sectors and actors involved, requiring integration and collaboration at various geographic, societal and temporal scales. The paper also therefore highlights four key factors relating to cephalopods that can support transitions towards increased food security: the value of new aquatic food species; food safety and authenticity systems; place-based innovations and empowerment of communities; and consumer behaviour, lifestyle and motivations for better health and environmental sustainability along the food value chain. 

The authors conclude that it is vital that cephalopod (and other) food systems policies should match ambitions relating to biodiversity conservation (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity) with the following UN Sustainable Development Goals being particularly relevant to both ambitions: 1. No Poverty; 2. Zero Hunger; 3. Good Health and Wellbeing; 5. Gender Equality; 12. Responsible Consumption and Production; 13. Climate Action; 14. Life Below Water; and 15. Life on Land.   

Applying the IPBES framework and its associated features in novel settings, as the authors have done, extends its utility and leads the way for potential adaptations and applications to understand other social-ecological systems including other wild harvest commodities, with implications for diverse marine species and ecosystems. This approach can inform those working to deliver marine and terrestrial food security, while also preserving biodiversity functions of ecosystems.

Figure 1: The cephalopod food system framework: Credit: Ainsworth et al. 2023 Disentangling global market drivers for cephalopods to foster transformations towards sustainable seafood systems. People and Nature.

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