The relationship between economic growth or income and consumption is frequently discussed in the realm of economics and beyond. The economic crisis provides ‘laboratory’-like conditions in which to explore how stagnating or declining economies, falling incomes or decreased purchasing power affects what we buy and consume.

14698176_7c44839711Demand for fish, for example, has been argued by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to be ‘sluggish’ in 2009 compared to 2008, which was a record year in fish production and consumption. According to the FAO ‘sales are sluggish in all major markets and prices and margins are under pressure for most seafood products’. Meat, dairy and fish have commonly been argued to be elastic products – that is, as incomes rise, consumption of these products also increases significantly. The crisis has demonstrated that the reverse is also true – as incomes fall, consumption decreases. However, the sheer variety of fish and seafood deems any generalised analysis of elasticity problematic. Cheaper, more ‘staple’ fish, for example, cod, may be inelastic and difficult to substitute, whereas more expensive fish, for example, tiger prawns, may be more elastic and can be replaced by other fish types or protein sources. For example, in the UK, some have claimed that fish and chips may be recession proof. More disaggregated data of fish consumption (by type or species) during the crisis is needed to draw any meaningful conclusions about elasticity, but we do at least know that consumption of fish overall has declined.  

For fish stocks the economic crisis may therefore come as a welcome break. Though a large proportion (approximately 45%) of our fish comes from farmed sources – aquaculture – the dominant proportion is still sourced from capture fisheries, i.e. the open sea. Concerns about the sustainability of fish stocks, particularly in regards to bluefin tuna, have dominated the media in recent months. A particularly controversial study carried out in 2006 argued that commercial fish stocks will have completely collapsed by 2046.

The New Scientist reports that there is some initial evidence that commercial fish stocks are recovering, although 63% of world fish stocks are still found to be at unsustainable levels, particularly in the developing world (which produces 80% of the world’s fish). Though the partial recovery in some stocks has been argued to be due to effective ‘conservation measures’ the economic crisis may well give these efforts an added boost.

The economic crisis may have momentarily achieved what many a public campaign could not and may signify a crucial turning point in the survival of some stocks. Ironically, the length of the recession may be a crucial determinant. However, there are equity issues involved, with the majority of people in the developed world eating fish in excess of their dietary needs whilst many in the developing world lack the purchasing power to consume enough fish to fulfil their basic nutritional needs. In the EU and US, people consume on average approximately 19kg per annum, whilst people in South America and Africa consume on average 8kg per person, per year.

For many the crisis will have a significant impact on total food consumption and may lead to far higher numbers of people who lack sufficient protein in their diets, are undernourished and go hungry.