9 January 2018
Researcher wins a prestigious €1.5M grant to explore how small scale fisheries can help prevent malnutrition in East Africa.

“Malnutrition affects 1 in 3 people globally, and despite countries losing up to 16% of their GDP from malnutrition, nutrition remains under-researched and underfunded” says Dr Christina Hicks, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster Environment Centre.

Christina, an expert in small scale fisheries, has won a coveted European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant to explore how fish, many of which are rich in micro-nutrients vital to human health like zinc, iron and vitamin B12, could help solve this problem.

“One billion people rely on fish as their major source of protein, and it is estimated that up to 70% of fish landings come from small scale fisheries,” said Christina, who is interested not just in food production, but in who gets to eat the most nutritious food.

“Food security research and policy disproportionally focuses on food availability or the total amount of food produced, underplaying how different people access available food, and whether they can utilise it to meet their nutritional needs,” said Christina.

Her five-year project, Fairfish, will explore both the nutritional values of different fish and how power dynamics and social factors affect who in low income countries gains access to the most nutritious varieties.

ERC Starting Grants are awarded to early career researchers and are highly sought after. They recognise a researcher’s outstanding potential and excellent science, expecting projects to fill an important knowledge gap.

“There are over 2,000 species of fish eaten regularly worldwide, though we only eat 4 or 5 regularly in the UK.  But we don’t have a full understanding of which species are rich in which micro-nutrients: in particular, we don’t know about the nutritional contributions of the different fish eaten in many low income countries,” said Christina.

The first part of the project will synthesise existing species level data to identify which ecological characteristics affect nutritional variability among species: characteristics such as habitat, diet, mobility, thermal regime, growth rate and size. Christina and her team will then use these findings to develop a model predicting nutrient concentrations for other species. Next, the project will establish where the nutrient rich fish are found and how they are likely to respond to threats such as fishing and climate change.

“We will identify areas where there are a lot of fish being landed that are high in micro-nutrients, but where micro-nutrient deficiency is also high - this would suggest that the right food is available but, because of other reasons, people are unable to access it,” said Christina.

“These are the areas with the greatest potential to improve nutrition through interventions at a local scale. We want to find out why the nutrients aren’t getting to where they are most needed.”

The rest of the project will look at how power relations and social factors, such as gender, status, class, land ownership, and maternal education, affect nutritional status, and examine ways to improve access to key nutrients among people who suffer from hidden hunger.

The study will be carried out in three contrasting countries in East Africa: Kenya, Madagascar and the Seychelles.  Madagascar has one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting, usually caused by nutrient deficiencies, even though fish is a major part of the diet of coastal populations. Kenya, where Christina spent part of her childhood and has carried out extensive research, also has a problem with childhood stunting. The Seychelles is wealthier and has more capacity to manage fisheries better: Christina hopes that beneficial findings there could provide useful lessons for the whole region.

Christina is in the process of putting together a project team, which will include two more social scientists, a quantitive ecologist and an expert in public health, as well as herself. She will involve researchers from Kenya, Madagascar and Seychelles, and work closely with fisheries, conservation, and health organisations in each of the three countries.

“I think the ERC judging panel really liked the interdisciplinary nature of the project,” said Christina.

In its feedback, the panel praised Christina’s “outstanding track record of publications in diverse high quality outlets (which) demonstrate her productivity, original thinking and influence in the international scientific community. There is evidence for international recognition and groundbreaking thinking. Her interest in social science's role in addressing environmental and sustainability problems is especially praiseworthy.”

Christina said that the application process for the grant was very demanding, and was grateful for the support offered by her colleagues at the Lancaster Environment Centre. “People were very generous with their time, I felt everyone was rooting for me.”


Photo credits to Emily Darling and Nick Graham.