Seafood is among the most internationally traded food commodities in the world and with a steadily growing population there is an increased demand for animal source proteins such as fish and shellfish. No surprise then that aquaculture is also the fastest growing sector of animal food production in the world. In fact, about half of all seafood products now originate from farming.
As with other food production systems aquaculture can negatively impact ecosystems and affect global flows of energy and resources. Tools aiming at mitigating environmental impacts of aquaculture include eco-certification.
The question is whether this will be enough to make any substantial difference at the global level.
A growing (and hungry) Asian middle class
In a new article published in AMBIO, centre researcher Max Troell together with colleagues from Gotland University and WorldFish Center in Malaysia analyzed whether certification can be an effective tool for a more sustainable aquaculture production.
What they found were a range of uncertainties. Currently, only around 4 % of the total production from aquaculture is estimated to be eco-certified. They also found that appliance to agreed standards are inconsistent, with lacking mechanisms or incentives for improvement among the worst performers. But more importantly, current certification schemes focus on species predominantly consumed in Europe and the US, with limited coverage of Asian markets. That is, according to the authors, barking up the proverbial wrong tree.
"Asia, a major consumer and already producing 90% of farmed seafood, has experienced an increase in demand for animal source foods of 2.5-5 % per year. Future certification should therefore focus on Asia. A growing middle class with a large appetite for seafood together with accelerated urbanization will amplify seafood production in the years to come," Troell says.
What to do
In addition to this geographical shift of focus, Troell and his colleagues present a range of improvements of the eco-certification schemes:
- Additional species need to be explored for eco-certification: certification so far has focused on environmentally demanding species like salmon and shrimp while mostly ignoring groups that have the potential to be produced more sustainably in large quantities, such as carp
- Invest in small-scale farmers: improved technical and financial assistance to small-scale farmers and enterprises that face barriers to certification is required to enable their participation in certification schemes
- Better alignment: certification standards should also consider actions that can improve the management of feed ingredients, habitat rehabilitation for biodiversity and ecosystem services, energy consumption and impacts on climate change - e.g. by applying Life Cycle Analysis
In addition, Malin Jonell, the lead author of the study, emphasizes that certification should be viewed as only one of many possible interventions to improve the aquaculture industry. While improvements to the certification schemes can certainly be made, a wider tool box of measures can boost the environmental management of aquaculture as it continues to grow.
Jonell, M., Phillips, M., Rönnbäck, P. & Troell, M. (2013) Eco-certification of farmed seafood: Will it make a difference? AMBIO (Published online: 23 April 2013) DOI 10.1007/s13280-013-0409-3
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