Tilapia as a symbol of the Filipino spirit | Inquirer Opinion

Tilapia as a symbol of the Filipino spirit

/ 04:20 AM November 20, 2023

As we celebrate World Fisheries Day and the Sixth National Tilapia Congress this month, it’s timely to embark on a reflective journey about a remarkable species—the tilapia. This journey transcends the narrative of how an African fish became a Filipino dietary staple; it’s a story of resilience, innovation, and sustainability, emblematic of the Filipino spirit.

The tilapia’s odyssey in the Philippines is more than just the tale of a fish—it’s a testament to the nation’s adaptability and pioneering spirit. Introduced in the 1950s, tilapia was not merely an addition to the Filipino diet, it catalyzed a revolution. The Philippines became a global leader in its production by the 1980s and this achievement was not just a stroke of good luck, but the result of an unwavering dedication to scientific innovation and sustainable practices. Scientists like Herminio R. Rabanal or Rafael Guerrero III didn’t just improve farming technologies, they set global benchmarks.

Fast-forward to 2021, the Philippines has produced approximately 281,114 metric tons of tilapia, contributing significantly to national aquaculture production. This growth, steady yet less robust than it used to be in the past, reflects resilience in the face of challenges. But resting on these laurels isn’t an option.


Addressing the need to produce more food with fewer resources is paramount. Improving biosecurity, resolving feed and seed issues, and exploring nonfed aquaculture are pivotal to this strategy. Environmental changes pose undeniable challenges. Saline intrusion, for instance, is altering coastal landscapes. Here, aquaculture transcends being a mere livelihood replacement, it becomes a solution to climate change, just like other innovations such as urban fish farming or integrated aquaculture systems.


The next chapter in this journey demands a dramatic shift in the way we produce aquatic food. We must modernize the sector and build resilient, effective, and profitable value chains. This modernization isn’t just about enhancing market access for farmers; it involves diversifying strains, advancing post-harvest processing, promoting quality, and embracing digital technologies. These steps will not only improve competitiveness but also drive a circular economy, ensuring fair pricing for farmers, environmental sustainability, and reduced wastage.

This journey aligns with the broader theme of the Blue Transformation, integral to the Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028 and advocated by member states of FAO or the Food and Agriculture Organization. The Blue Transformation is a radical rethinking of aquatic food production in the face of multiple challenges of our time to ensure the sustainable management of all fisheries, upgrade aquatic value chains, and promote the sustainable intensification and expansion of aquaculture. The goal is to increase production while minimizing resource consumption and environmental impact, leveraging scientific advancements and nature-based solutions.


The stakes are high. Inaction risks decreasing aquatic food availability and thereby increasing reliance on terrestrial food production and natural resources, as well as the potential loss of livelihoods for millions. Hence, FAO, in alignment with the strategy of the Philippine Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, commits to supporting this transformation.

In closing, let each tilapia dish serve as a reminder of the resilience of the Filipino people, the challenges we confront, and our collective responsibility toward a sustainable future. Together, we should strive to navigate this journey with wisdom, dedication, and a firm commitment to a sustainable blue planet.

Lionel Dabbadie is the FAO representative in the Philippines.

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TAGS: Commentary, Filipino identity, tilapia

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