To update an old saying, give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach his village to farm fish sustainably, and the world moves a step closer to ending hunger.
That’s the strategy behind the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish at Mississippi State University, home to one of the world’s leading aquaculture research and development programs.
Established with a $15 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Fish Innovation Lab aims to improve nutrition, food security and livelihoods in developing countries by supporting the sustainable development of aquaculture and fisheries.
MSU President Mark E. Keenum calls the USAID partnership “groundbreaking” and notes that the university is “well-positioned to lead this important effort.”
“Our relationship with USAID is a long and fruitful one that underscores Mississippi State’s position as a Top 20 agricultural research university,” says Keenum. “It also speaks specifically to the quality of research and scholarship in our College of Veterinary Medicine.”
MSU serves as the lead institution for the Fish Innovation Lab, which manages a “super team” of experts from U.S. and international universities as well as other development agencies. This diverse group of researchers is addressing emerging challenges in aquaculture and fisheries in developing countries by identifying and implementing promising improvements that will lead to improved livelihoods and more nutritious, fish-based diets.
The university is a long-time leader in aquaculture research. In the early days of catfish farming, the College of Veterinary Medicine worked closely with the state’s burgeoning catfish industry to advance techniques, improve fish health and increase production. Today, Mississippi leads the nation in the production of 350 million pounds of farm-raised catfish annually with an economic impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Keenum recognized that MSU’s leadership in aquaculture could be a powerful force in global efforts to eliminate hunger and poverty. In 2010, MSU began collaborating with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization on research projects related to food security and nutrition. Four years later, the FAO expanded the partnership by recognizing MSU as a Center of Knowledge on Aquatic Animal Disease Diagnostics.
The Fish Innovation Lab, which operates under MSU’s Global Center for Aquatic Food Security, will fund approximately $7.5 million in research grants through 2023.
Upon receiving the USAID grant award, the Fish Innovation Lab launched five, one-year “Quick Start” projects to initiate the lab’s long-term research-for-development efforts. Each of the quick starts has at least one MSU researcher on the team as well as partners from other U.S. and international universities, nongovernmental organizations or private companies.
The composition of each project team reflects the interdisciplinary approach of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Researchers focus not only on aquaculture practices but also on socio-economic conditions underlying hunger.
For a quick start project in Zambia, a team from MSU’s Social Science Research Center spent several weeks conducting surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews to learn about cultural and societal factors affecting nutrition and food security, especially for women and babies. Students at MSU and the University of Zambia participated in these research activities, building their personal and institutional capacities and giving them opportunities to network with global partners and stakeholders.
In addition to improving human health, responsible practices can protect the environment and even restore oceans, lakes and other natural systems that have collapsed because of overfishing. The aquaculture industry now produces nearly half the fish consumed worldwide, which is helping relieve the pressure on natural systems where wild harvests have been pushed to the limit.
One day in the not-so-distant future, aquaculture will produce most of the fish consumed by humans — but unchecked growth and lax regulation could do more harm than good. By sharing knowledge and best practices, the Fish Innovation Lab will drive the development of sustainable growth models to feed more people and enhance global food security, with Mississippi State leading the way.
“Our partnership is creating opportunities for us to directly experience the world of marine animal medicine while instilling the vital importance of protecting the marine environment,” says Morgan. “Some students will likely dedicate their lives to caring for these amazing animals, but even those who don’t will be able to serve as ambassadors for the conservation of dolphins, sea turtles and all marine life that is so vital for our planet to protect.”