Are Third Party Seafood Certifications Sustainable?
(The following is the first in a series of articles where IFCNR examines
the pros and cons of 3rd Party Sustainability Labeling.)
“Sustainability” and “traceability” are two of the most cherished words in the vocabulary of environmental NGOs, marine scientists, food policy makers, seafood marketers and distributors, high dollar restaurant chefs, and the seafood consumer literati in Washington DC, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle who gather annually to celebrate “Sustainable Seafood Week.”
And rightly so on many levels.
Together they are the touchstone decreeing that the seafood is safe, healthy, and the product of fishermen and “fish” farmers attune to safeguarding the welfare of the species, their co-workers and the environment from whence each tasty morsel came.
The two words enjoy an important symbiosis whereby the ability to trace an item offered by a fishmonger, grocer or internet sales site back through its journey from estuary, bay, ocean or pond to a consumer’s plate illuminates the compassion or cruelty, environmental care or destruction employed in that species’ capture or cultivation.
If a seafood item is labeled “sustainable” by one of the countless certifying agents around the globe consumers are to assume a certain robustness of that species’ numbers in Nature, that it was treated with care in its capture or cultivation, and that it is of the highest quality that can be brought to a diner’s table. For the fisherman or fish farmers, it can place their product – salmon, shrimp, etc. – with high-end retailers willing to pay better than pond bank prices.
Food security in general and the safety and supply of food from the sea in particular are and should be righteous concerns for all humankind. If the Earth’s aquatic eco-systems are destroyed by rampant over-exploitation, the oceans die. If the ocean’s die, so too does the planet. Thus everyone with a care towards the environment and future generations of its inhabitants might be expected to have an interest in and recognize the importance of reducing harm done to marine life by sourcing only sustainable seafood.
For seafood to be truly “sustainable,” whether farmed or wild caught, social equity, the third leg of the Triple Bottom Line stool must be factored into the equation. The humans involved in the process must be fairly compensated, treated with dignity and respect, and understand they are an important part of sustaining the existence and welfare of wild species and the environment. IFCNR’s mantra, that “humans are part of nature, not apart from nature,” has a collorary: “Poverty is the worst form of pollution.” Humankind must understand the consequences of its collective behavior if sustainability is to be achieved.
The days of seafood callously scooped from the sea with disregard to damage done to coral reefs, the ocean floor, and horrific by-catch kill or from a fetid, shallow pond and plopped into a bag or basket then hustled to market are far from over. In fact, the era of “sustainable” and “traceable” seafood is just beginning.
Consumer thanks is owed to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for calling attention to the entwined issues of food security, food safety, social justice, and environmental responsibility through its “Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries” issued in 1995 and its aquaculture guidelines first drafted in 2006.
Similar kudos are due to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) headquartered in Switzerland for creating in 1996 the Marine Stewardship Council, the pioneer and premier organization to certify sustainable capture fisheries. Fourteen years later, WWF formed the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).
Its founders dismayed at the collapse of the northwest Atlantic cod stocks, MSC began life as a cooperative venture to end destructive fishing practices. It took shape as a result of a union between a leading non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) and a Dutch for-profit mega-corporation (Unilever) that promised to process only “sustainable” seafood. ASC, too, was formed as a joint venture between WWF and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH).
That union showed promise as a practical mechanism to neutralize tension between the seafood industry and the environmental movement. The idea was to provide consumers with the best “environmental” choice in seafood and create an unbiased and objective arbiter of right and wrong practices by wild caught fisheries that through “incentives” would improve the world’s fisheries. The relationship between MSC and Unilever, however, proved to be short lived.
NGO’s are known for their opposition to corporations and industries they consider blights on the environment. On the plus side, NGO-run 3rd party certification schemes quell much of that negative dynamic, in part because the NGOs benefit economically from corporate subsidies either directly or through fees for the use of proprietary eco-label imprinted on product packaging. Fully half of MSC’s 2012 income - almost $20 million - stems from logo licensing fees with the rest from donations.
Fisheries, processors and seafood brands alike benefit because a significant degree of negative public relations from NGOs subsides and because they hope, as the eco-label owning parties claim, environmentally conscious consumers are willing to pay extra to assuage their concern for the planet by doing little more than purchasing commodities bearing an eco-logo.
The value of seafood does not rest solely on its nutritional benefits or contribution to the world food supply. Economically it is among the highest traded commodities and most dynamic of global food industries.
Food from the sea rivals and in some instances proves more economically important than that produced on land. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the 2012 export value of seafood from developing nations (that account for two thirds of the world’s seafood production and more than half its dollar value) exceeded that of rice, meat, milk, sugar and bananas combined.
To find the value and importance of global seafood the starting point begins with FAO. FAO is the gold standard for worldwide fisheries data and its “State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014” is the most up-to-date statistical resource upon which virtually every report on the subject is built.
According to FAO, 58.3 million humans worldwide owe all or a significant part of their living to capture fisheries and aquaculture. Seafood produced for human consumption via both methods reached 157 million tons in 2012 (91 million tons from capture fisheries and 66 million tons from aquaculture) for a ballpark figure of $340 billion U.S. dollars.
One unfortunate truth of human nature (regardless of whether one is focused on for-profit or non-profit entities) is that where dollars in such staggering amounts are concerned altruism for humankind or the environment tends to fall by the wayside.
As quickly as FAO began crafting its technical guidelines for sustainable capture and farmed fisheries, independent certification organizations appeared and began multiplying like predator species sniffing out a banquet of unsuspecting prey.
The same year MSC appeared, Naturland, a German organization promoting organic farming since 1982, entered the seafood certification arena. The next year, 1997, the aquaculture industry – including the world’s largest aquaculture producers and processors, seafood restaurant importers, retail grocery chains, etc. – formed an international trade association: the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA).
Understandably, capture fishery and aquaculture concerns have an abiding distrust of NGOs regulating their behavior just as NGOs are skeptical that for-profit businesses are truthful regarding their treatment of the environment.
Because of the lucrative potential of issuing eco-labels and certifying seafood products not to mention their perceived influence on consumer preferences at the retail level, competition can become heated.
Early on, MSC proved vulnerable to internecine rivalry. After Unilever sold its seafood subsidiary and withdrew from the MSC partnership, a consortium of competitive NGOs forced WWF out as the group’s managing entity by 1999. WWF re-emerged on the certification scene when it formed the ASC in 2010.
FAO’s first draft of responsible aquaculture guidelines was issued in 2006. That year, Earth Island Institute created “Friends of the Sea” (FOS) offering to certify the sustainability of both capture fisheries and aquaculture. Some of the many certifying organizations like Friends of the Sea are NGO borne. Some are hybrids combining NGOs, government agencies and for-profit companies.
In 1997, retailers and supermarkets in Britain and in Europe founded EUREPGAP whose original focus was on the welfare of workers and animals in agriculture. The G.A.P. in its name stands for “Good Agricultural Practices.” A name change to Global G.A.P. and an alliance with Friends of the Sea allowed European salmon farmers to affix both FOS and Global G.A.P. eco-labels on their products by 2007.
Few of the “certifying” agencies do their own audit work to monitor whether a fishery or aquaculture operation complies with sustainable practices. They rely on outside evaluators like Ireland-based Global Trust. Since stepping into the certification scene in 1998, Global Trust has been the contract auditor for MSC, GAA, Certified Quality Salmon, Seafood Trust, Label Rouge, Global GAP to mention a few. Such evaluations can be pricey and take years to complete. Costs can run from a low of $3000 to $20,000 according to Friends of the Sea to a range from $15,000 to $120,000 estimated by MSC. Critics note that one fishery ran up a tab of $150,000 before certification was granted.
The dollars involved and competition for the increased income associated with MSC certification bring another set of problems. Critics claim that certifying agencies hoping to appear more attractive to potential clients are apt to inflate scores during the process and overlook a fishery’s shortcomings. After MSC certified the Alaska Salmon Processors, the group awarded the MSC certificate – Pacific Seafood Processors Association – refused to allow 20 smaller processors to share the MSC logo unless they fork over three percent of gross sales or $10-$15 million a year. An arbiter finally settled the issue allowing the protesting group to use the MSC label.
The prize sought by 3rd Party certifying groups and certified companies alike is placement by the former and display by the latter of eco-labels on product packages.
MSC’s eco-label is a stylized silhouette of a fin fish within a tilted blue oval. The back of the fish is formed by a checkmark. ASC’s eco-label is similar. The fish image and the checkmark are separated and set in a rectangle with rounded corners. GAA’s eco-label is a blue circle with three fish. And Friend of the Sea uses a circular red “life preserver” with the image of a sailboat on waves in the center.
Annual fees to display eco-labels also vary. Friend of the Sea fees start at 1000 Euros (approximately $1100 U.S.) and use a sliding rate based on the number of products and number of countries where those products are sold. MSC eco-labels are said to start at $250 with a cap of $2000 per year depending on gross sales.
The promotional pitch for each eco-label is the same, and again, quite laudable in the intent. Each offers distributors, retailers and consumers confidence in the product’s safety and quality as well as the idea that it was sourced responsibly. The most compelling rationale offered distributors and retailers is the concept that consumers seeking earth-friendly seafood are willing to pay premium prices for products bearing an eco-label.
Third Party Certification organizations, and MSC in specific, do provide needed services. They do point consumers to seafood sourced responsibly and discourage distributors and retailers from buying and offering products traced to unscrupulous producers. Still for all their good work and good intentions espoused and put into practice, all is not well within the 3rd Party Certification industry.
The glut of eco-label issuing groups raises the very real possibility of “green-washing” (making false claims of sustainability). That possibility appears to be more and more a reality as critic claims prove credible.
A very practical problem with the growth of 3rd Party Certification is seen in that fact that distributors as well as large retail/grocery and restaurant chains view the variety of agencies and eco-logos with dismay and confusion. The term they seek from an eco-label is “consistency.” If eco-labels are consistent in the criteria they consider sustainable, consumer confidence in selecting truly sustainable seafood products increases. According to Paul Gibson, former seafood group director for Safeway, when consumers get confused, “they go and buy chicken.”
Gibson said the announcement of the formation of Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) by 17 international seafood companies promised to end that confusion by offering hope that a “commonality” of standards would soon follow. That was 2013. GSSI is still in its fledgling state and its objectivity appears questionable due to the perception that it promotes only a select few certifying groups.
MSC, the universally acknowledged leader of the NGO-based certification community, is not without loud critic voices claiming it strayed from its original mission and certifies fisheries that are far from sustainable. Are seafood products bearing the MSC eco-label sustainable? According to one Canadian NGO, that conclusion is a “gamble.”
Greenpeace and the Pew Environmental Group are among MSC’s harshest NGO critics. Greenpeace’s 2009 assessment of MSC published a litany of MSC certified fisheries that group claimed were not sustainable:
New Zealand bottom trawl hoki fishery,
Norwegian saithe bottom trawl fishery,
Australian mackerel icefish bottom trawl fishery,
Patagonian toothfish fishery,
Alaska Pollock fishery,
North Sea herring fishery,
South African hake bottom trawl fishery,
Ekofish Group North Sea twin-rigged otter trawl plaice fishery,
Western Australian rock lobster fishery and the
Canadian swordfish fishery.
MSC, Greenpeace charged, certifies fisheries that meet minimum sustainability standards passing some with only a score of 60 out of 100. They charge that questionable MSC certified fisheries target depleted stocks; endanger non-target species such as blue sharks and sea turtles; trap endangered seal pups; and/or destroy the benthic eco-systems at the oceans’ bottom.
Certifying fishery practices whether by organizations related to industry or environmental NGOs or a mix of the two that irreparably damage ocean eco-systems, carpet sea bottoms with tons of penned fish waste, or deplete forage organisms that disrupt the balance of predator and prey vital to the health of aquatic life are not sustainable and should not be claimed otherwise by any group.
Should fisheries and aquaculture abide by high standards of environmental traceability and sustainability? Yes, of course.
But questions arise as to the effect and therefore the importance of 3rd Party Certification. If, as it appears, the process evolved from an altruistic environmental concern for solutions to the problems plaguing global seafood production into a highly competitive and disproportionately expensive business whose abiding interest is to increase revenues and gain “market” share of the certification industry then the system has lost site of its mission as well as its utility and credibility.
Third party certification does have verifiable positive results. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches sport the MSC eco-logo as do seafood products at Costco, Target and high-end retailers like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. That suggests that effort to educate consumers is working. The assumption, of course, is whether as MSC says products bearing its eco-label are sustainable or, as critics charge, doubtful.
MSC, this year, set aside some $440,000 in its Global Fisheries Sustainability Fund to promote education and research to help smaller fisheries acquire sustainability certification.
The perception that 3rd Party Certification is straying from its original mission and dedication to helping mitigate stressors upon the oceans in favor of generating revenues needs to be addressed and either dismissed or acknowledged. If that claim is true, corrective action must be taken in order for consumers to make accurate and responsible decisions in search of environmentally sustainable seafood and for the seafood industry, fisheries and aquaculture alike to work in tandem toward the goals espoused by the FAO principles upon which every 3rd Party Certifier claims as its foundation.
(In upcoming articles, IFCNR will look at the problems and promise of 3rd Party Certification.)
Definition of "Sustainability": Telling the Truth
The following article appeared in Aquaculture Magazine. It is reproduced here to stimulate a realistic view of how "sustainability" should be defined and perceived. Key is the admonition of all involved to "tell the truth." - IFCNR
Branding American Aquaculture
As farmers, buyers, suppliers, feed producers or equipment manufacturers you know the state of American Aquaculture inside and out. Better than anyone, you know your industry’s strengths and weaknesses, your competitive advantage and your Achilles heel. However, the same is not true for most of your customers; consumers, chefs and opinion formers whose dominant disposition towards aquaculture is often one of ignorant skepticism.
Øistein Thorsen, principal consultant at Benchmark Sustainability Science, explains why this this is a serious risk to your business, and outlines how embracing the journey towards sustainability, the rise of digital communications technology and honest story telling can help you build a trustworthy brand for American farmed seafood.
The environment for food production is changing rapidly. Who would have predicted 10 years ago that world farmed fish production would surpass beef production, which it did in 2011.
The industry’s fast growth is attracting increased scrutiny and pressure to document and improve practice. With a growing population, growing demand for animal protein and unprecedented pressures on resources such as land, water and energy, aquaculture must, like any other food sector, demonstrate its sustainability credentials. However, while “sustainability” is a word on everyone’s lips in the food industry, few agree on a definition.
Back in 1987 The Brundtland Commission put forth a definition of ‘sustainable development’ as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This forward-looking definition shows that our current debate over the meaning of the “S” word misses the point. It is only future generations – our children and grand children – who can fully grade the success of our actions, investments and strategies.
Since modern aquaculture is a young industry, it is therefore premature to declare our actions “sustainable.” Instead, our best course of action is to critically assess our practices and honestly communicate the steps we are taking, towards sustainability. This means documenting and continually refining our management practices in order to learn, change and innovate in response to new challenges and situations.
In this effort the explosion of digital technologies offers opportunities never seen before. Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones today. Everyone with a cell phone has the potential to snap a photo and share it with the world in a matter of seconds. So even if you don’t own your supply chain, by association your brand is still perceived to be responsible. A bad news story about a fish farm somewhere, hurts the industry everywhere. In a sense, digital transparency has created a situation where you are never better than the worst among you.
Similarly, digital communications technology represents opportunities for demonstrating traceability, improving and auditing production standards, and communicating with and connecting consumers to your farms in new and meaningful ways.
This provides opportunities for differentiating yourself based on your values, practices, products and outcomes. There is much room for new ways to help combat public misperceptions about aquaculture in general, and to show how better management practices improve quality, fish health, welfare and environmental impact while preventing the over-use of antibiotics. This is the time to embrace new technologies to help demonstrate and communicate a clear and positive story about what responsible aquaculture looks like. American aquaculture is well placed to lead the way.
The best way to manage the risks associated with digital technologies is to be pro-active, open and honest about your achievements, challenges and actions. Do not wait until everything is perfect – it probably never will be – or until someone catches you out – then you will be playing defensive catch-up. Your consumers and customers will respect you for it.
Communicate as if Consumers Matter
First of all – consumers and their perceptions matter! Secondly, there is no such thing as “the consumer”, there are many consumers. All with different needs and taste preferences, expectations and varying levels of knowledge. As an industry we should respond with a diversity of food products, as well as communication products that meet this demand.
What all consumers have in common is that they care about value. For some this means affordability, others focus on taste, for others again the primary concern is food safety or nutritional qualities.
The younger consumers – the so-called millennials – are looking for a story. They value the “maker” and the “local”. Eight in ten American “millennials” (that’s 18-35 year-olds) say they want to know more about how their food is produced. They say they like to see what hides “behind the scenes” and they feel brands do not tell them enough. What an opportunity this represents for the largely small-scale American aquaculture industry!
Furthermore, people trust people – not institutions. In the food sector this means we trust the “farmer”, and not “big agri-business”. The US based Center for Food Integrity found that the basis for trust – more than technical competency and skill to get a job done – is a perception of “shared value” – or put differently, consumer confidence that the producer is in it for the right reasons. Trust is the basis for any industry’s social license, and in turn, its license to operate.
While there is a powerful story to be told about going the extra mile to build trust, there is no story in compliance. So, as the millennial consumer wants to live, work and shop her values, doing good for companies is no longer just a “nice to have” item. It is becoming core business - a crucial element of a successful strategy to produce better food, attract new staff, customers and investors.
In the case of aquaculture good information, and as a result trust, is a scarce resource. As a young industry looking to build trust in what we do – we have a choice in terms of the narrative we create.
At one end of the spectrum is that of a large-scale provider of a commodity. Like corn. We may aspire to the scale and efficiencies of Big Ag, ridding ourselves of our small-scale roots and instead become more of a polished corporate institution. At the other end, we can look to craft brewers, or even specialty coffee roasters who have both driven forward a quality, transparency and consumption revolution the last 10 years. Embracing the story, people, locations and craft behind their products to build strong trustworthy brands and communities with their consumers. Is the time right for a craft-revival of the American catfish?
Whatever new path this industry, and your company decides to take, the key to unlocking consumer trust in aquaculture lies in demonstrating that you understand the concerns and the passion that people have for food today. Food is personal. Food is survival. You are what you eat. Food is celebration. Food is culture.
For aquaculture this means celebrating the culture behind our products and discovering the language of food to better connect with consumers and chefs. This is not done overnight, but the following three points provides a good roadmap:
Firstly, embrace sustainability as the journey and direction for your industry and its role in safeguarding our food system and the livelihood of future generations. This is about defining and communicating the steps we are taking towards sustainability, not a race to a minimum and least differentiated definition of “sustainable.”
Secondly, be proud and transparent about what you do. Embracing digital technology is the most effective way to be upfront and demonstrate what responsible aquaculture looks like.
Thirdly, grow good food better and tell your story. Clear outcomes and honest stories build trust and the social license needed for our sector to operate and flourish.