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The Misdirected Passions of Rio+20

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It's been twenty years since the famous 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And this year's conference, better known as Rio+20, has the world talking yet again about how to "reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet." And still, our efforts to answer these daunting questions lead to nothing more than a few days of conversation and a handful of nonbinding solutions.

It's not hard to understand why practical solutions are hard to come by in these arenas. Finding common ground among such a diverse crowd, across a spectrum of global issues, is often impractical and rightfully overwhelming.

That's why the summit should be putting more emphasis on a topic that is practical, universal in its reach and addresses each of the basic goals set forth by the summit: to reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet. That topic is the oceans and their potential to feed a hungry planet.

Here's how it works: The world population is expected to increase 28 percent by 2050, up to 9 billion people. We must increase food production by 70 percent to meet this demand, yet population is growing faster than the supply of arable land (arable land per person has been declining since the 1960s). With a bevy of stresses already threatening food production on land, we must be able to turn to the oceans as a last refuge.

But the oceans are in trouble. Global marine fish catch has been declining since the late 1980s thanks in part to $16 billion a year in government subsidies which allow the global fleet to be an estimated 250 percent larger than needed.

Luckily, there is a practical way to restore the oceans in the places that matter most to food production. By focusing on the 25 countries that control 75 percent of the world's marine fish catch (and implementing policies that stop overfishing, reduce bycatch and restore nurseries) we can restore fish stocks above peak levels and feed 700 million people per day at a sustainable rate.

So far we've missed this opportunity to protect the productive areas of the ocean. Ocean conservationists have focused their money on the biologically diverse hotspots, not the most productive places. While the ecological importance of biodiverse areas can't be ignored and deserve the attention they're getting, they aren't the areas that provide us with the majority of the fish we eat. In the coming years, we also need to provide more funding, management and attention to the productive parts of the oceans.

We're fortunate that the oceans were included as one of the seven critical issues at the summit because they've been largely ignored in the international community despite their vastness and ecological significance. But, we need to -- and can do -- more than talk generally about this problem at international summits. We can bring about real change -- country by country -- and restore the world's wild fish and feed hundreds of millions of people.

This practical solution would also address all of the summit's goals: to reduce poverty, advance social equity and ensure environmental protection on an ever more crowded planet to get to the future we want.

Saving the oceans to feed the world will reduce poverty by feeding hungry people, advance social equity among artisanal fishermen, and ensure the oceans are healthy and abundant in the face of a population quickly approaching 9 billion. As far as Rio+20 and the policies of major fishing nations go, putting in place practical solutions to unlock the potential of the ocean should be at the top of the list.

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