Certification: improving sustainability of aquaculture?

Third party certification of food products is contributing to sustainable production, but when it comes to aquaculture, there are serious limits. Based partially on experiences from the SEAT project, an article published in the journal Science (September 6th, 2013), by a consortium of researchers from a number of international institutions, argues that it should be seen as one approach among many for steering aquaculture toward sustainability.

Tilapia dish with ASC certification

Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing global food production systems, almost half of the world’s supply of seafood (and around 13% of the world’s animal-protein supply), is seafood from farmed sources. Over the last couple of decades there has been a rapid expansion of the sector and this has come with a wide range of concerns about environmental and social impacts. In response to these concerns, NGO-led certification schemes, such as the Dutch based Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), have developed standards against which the environmental and social performance of aquaculture can be measured. It is the fear of under-regulation by Governments that has lead to the prominence of private certification, but these standards setters are now the ones being blamed for being inflexible, divisive and restrictive.

In this recent paper the authors argue that aquaculture certification has limits as a means of governing sustainable production. Only around 5% of global aquaculture production is currently certified and the potential is limited for further growth. These limitations are due to the fact that the concentration of demand for certified seafood is in US and EU markets, but the majority of seafood consumption occurs elsewhere, notably Asia where most fish and shrimp farming occurs. As well as this, the 13 main species currently covered by the ASC only account for around about 42% of worldwide aquaculture seafood production.

The impacts of standards are also limited by their focus on the farm-level. In reality, it is cumulative impacts of multiple farms in one location on the surrounding environment or farming communities are much more important. A final criticism of current standards is that they can’t address the needs of some of the most important stakeholders—namely the farmers in developing countries, or “smallholders”. These smallholders make up a disproportionately large fraction of the roughly 24 million individuals employed by the aquaculture industry. Issues with language, cost and time, means they often can’t participate in most of these programs.

Confusion also arises for the producers themselves from the multitude of different certification schemes and standards. It’s difficult for producers to decide which standards to adopt, since these will directly affect what markets they can sell to and which processors they can use and the focus on the farming practices means not all activities into account when applying for sustainable certification. For instance, none of the major schemes even consider the environmental costs of transportation and distribution.

For certification to have significant global impact greater focus on the needs of the huge and increasingly affluent market for seafood in Asia is essential. Asian producer countries have already made huge strides in assurance of food safety for export trade, but these improvements together with complementary environmental and social concerns now need the target of certification for their domestic markets. If standard setters including certifiers, food service and retailers from Europe and N. America are sincere about enhancing global sustainability they need to engage more fully in these Asian markets where many have rapidly expanding operations.

You can read the paper here.

On November 13th, 2013, the ASC’s chief executive responded to the article in a Q&A on SeafoodSource.com. You can see his reply here.

To cite this paper: S. R. Bush, B. Belton, D. Hall, P. Vandergeest, F. J. Murray, S. Ponte, P. Oosterveer, M. S. Islam, A. P. J. Mol, M. Hatanaka, F. Kruijssen, T. T. T. Ha, D. C. Little, R. Kusumawati. Certify Sustainable Aquaculture? Science Vol. 341: 1067-1068.

Lead author and Wageningen University researcher Dr. Simon Bush briefly explains why the consortium felt it was important to make these points.

Photo © Loni Hensler