A friend used to say to me “something is a fish” when things were far away. Today, the global food system is not just “one-fish”; is failing billions of people.

Hunger, malnutrition and overweight coexist in rich and poor countries, often in the same city or even in the same home. Diabetes, heart disease, dead coastal areas, and other social burdens associated with our food system continue to rise. In recognition of this urgent challenge, the United Nations will hold a global summit in September for government, business, nonprofit organizations, and civil society leaders to design a more sustainable, healthy, and equitable food system.

Transforming our food system will require a new thinking and a more careful consideration of blue foods – aquatic animals, plants and algae cultivated and caught in freshwater and marine environments.

To date, the movement to build productive and sustainable food systems has focused on transforming land-based crops and livestock, largely bypassing the critical role that fish and other aquatic foods play in nutrition, livelihoods and ecosystems worldwide. . This role will increase as food production becomes increasingly sensitive to climate change.

Over the past half century, policymakers and business leaders have prioritized efficiency and scale by supporting leading farmers of agricultural and livestock crops, lowering food prices for consumers, and expanding market opportunities. Rather, blue foods represent a large and complex set that challenges similar strategies.

More than 3,000 species of fish, shellfish, plants and algae are produced globally in a wide range of ecosystems with different technologies at multiple scales. These include, for example, tuna cages in Australia, seaweed lines and bivalves along China’s coastline, and freshwater catfish ponds in Vietnam, Nigeria and the US. Blue foods provide protein and trace elements that help prevent maternal and infant mortality, cognitive decline and deficits. They also offer healthy fats that help reduce overweight and metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

In many cases, they produce lower greenhouse gas emissions and environmental effects than industrial livestock. The Blue Food Assessment, led by Stanford University and the Stockholm Stability Center, is an international initiative that works to identify and fill gaps in understanding the role of aquatic food in global food systems now and in the future.

The diversity of blue foods should be accepted as an opportunity, not an obstacle, to improve food and nutritional safety. In Bangladesh, the view from an airplane shows a landscape with small freshwaters and salty ponds filled with a range of fish and aquatic plants. These aquaculture operations are biologically diverse treasuries and important food resources for rural and urban communities.

Similarly, the Great Lakes African region produces large volumes of affordable, micronutrient-rich fish, which are traded and consumed throughout the region. At the Kisumu fish market in the Western Province of Kenya, I noticed crowded tables with small fish sold for soups and tilapia counters from three sources – grown in regional aquaculture ponds, captured by Lake Victoria and imported from China – all different price points and quality for the domestic consumer. These fish, and many others I did not know, were easily sold and served in small portions alongside vegetables and starch. Locals see fish as “rich food for the poor.”

Blue foods, of course, are rich food for everyone people, with increasing global consumer demand. As wild fish catch and aquaculture production vary greatly by region, the seafood trade has become a thriving international business. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, seafood trade has nearly doubled in volume and value in recent decades. Fish are now among the most traded commodities in the global food system, which brings with it significant effects.

Many high-value wild fish stocks on the market have been overfished. Meanwhile, some aquaculture systems, such as salmon cages in Chilean fjords and freshwater cages in Indonesia’s Jatiluhur Reservoir, have intensified. In Africa and Asia, including the disputed South China Sea, illegal fishing by foreign nations has deprived local communities of traditional and affordable fish diets and local incomes, raising food injustice problems.

With wildlife stocks being fished with capacity, aquaculture will contribute to most of the extra fish produced and consumed in the future. Like all food production systems, aquaculture represents resource and environmental exchanges.

Most aquaculture systems rely on inputs, and genetic and nutritional advances have reduced the amount of food used per pound of fish produced. Food ingredients have been continuously shifted towards plant-based products and ornaments from fish and livestock processing factories. Comparing environmental outcomes, cultivated salmon or tilapia is similar to industrial chicken production. But this reliance on soil-based foods, such as soy protein, could have unintended environmental consequences including deforestation, as significant areas of the Amazon have now been cleared for soybean production.

The only way to regulate the global food system is to address the opportunities and challenges of blue and green foods together.

Individual countries need to go beyond the governance of food systems through the ministries of agriculture and fisheries, which mainly describe progress by production volume and economic measures. Governments should establish a coordinating agency or ministry of food with a specific budget and mandate to promote improvements in health and environmental outcomes.

The United Nations and leaders gathered at the summit in September have a unique opportunity to transform food systems for all. Global food business leaders who invest in improving social and environmental outcomes should be applauded.

The most important producers, fishermen and small-scale aquaculture, which provide more than half of the seafood consumed worldwide, should not be seen as marginal, low-impact contributors, but instead as anchors of food system resistance and potential engines of economic growth.

Rosamond Naylor is Professor William Wrigley of Earth System Science and the founding director of the Center for Food Safety and the Environment at Stanford University. She is also co-chair of the Blue Food Assessment.