Asian Aquaculture – Sustaining European Seafood Security?

SEAT coordinator – Prof. Dave Little, gave at presentation at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST)’s Spring Conference: Securing the Future Supply of Food. You can download a copy of the presentation or watch his talk here.

Prof. Little discussed the EU’s food security, it’s dependence on increasing imports from the global south and Asia’s rising dominance in both aquaculture production and consumption. As Asia’s importance emerges in supplying the EU with whitefish and shrimp, investigations from the perspectives of both consumer and producer approaches reveal some comparative advantages of Asian, compared to EU, production when looking from a systems perspective.


Although not widely acknowledged, the EU has a low level of fish “self-sufficiency” as nearly 50% of its demand for seafood is met by imports from developing countries.

The reliance on imports due to depleted local fish stocks and multiple constraining factors on local production have placed an increasing importance on farmed fish production in Asia.

Trade flows due to seafood imports in the EU

FAO, 2010

Asian Aquaculture

Asia has a long history of aquaculture production due to pre-existing domestic demand, the local dietary importance of seafood and environmental and cultural factors. This has put Asian countries in a comparative advantage with respect to the recent and rapid development of trade between the two.

As well as contributing towards food security for European countries, aquaculture production in Asia makes important contributions towards local food chains and employment providing employment for some of the poorest groups in local countries. The environmental impacts of fish farming have been widely reported but this is not always reported fully.

Mangrove destruction may be seen as a symbol of the damage of shrimp farming but there is evidence to suggest that mangrove loss and land use changes use changes may have occurred decades prior to use for aquaculture. Deforestation along the Mekong Delta in Vietnam may be seen as a side effect of increasing aquaculture production in the region but loss has not just occurred in the last 30 years (when production began its rapid increase), over 80% of forests in the West of the delta were cut down over a century ago.

Life Cycle Analysis

The sustainable qualities of many Asian aquaculture systems that export to Europe have not been adequately recognised and criticism on food safety, environmental and social grounds have often been misplaced or made on biased evidence. The carbon footprint of importing exotic products may be thought to be automatically greater than the locally produced equivalent due to transportation, this is not always the case and Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) are needed to assess a products true environmental impact.

Henriksson et al., 2012

Henriksson et al., 2012

 By conducting LCAs for products you can gauge where the greatest energy or CO2 emissions are occurring (see below) and where action is needed. LCAs on comparable products may also show whether local production or importation of a product may be the most energy efficient, an important factor to consider as populations grow and more food needs to be produced and distributed.

What Next?

Growth in Asian economies may limit sustainability of current trade flows as domestic demand for greater quantities (and high quality) seafood grows, but they offer opportunities for EU producers.

The current situation may offer a “breathing space” for Europe to develop a balanced approach to meeting its seafood security through better managed fisheries, domestic and imported farmed products.

Photo © Loni Hensler