Aquaculture Industry Confronts Global Health Crises, Slavery, and Feeding the World

Forbes Finance 4 days ago
An aerial view taken from onboard a helicopter shows agriculture and aquaculture farms along a river ... [+] in the Thai province of Prachinburi is pictured on August 6, 2019. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)

At Global Aquaculture Alliance's recent Global Outlook for Aquaculture Leadership (GOAL) conference in Chennai, India, participants got an educational look at the hot topics within the aquaculture business. I’m happy to report that this is one trade group that is not encouraging its members to stick their heads in the sand. The industry is talking about many of the issues that worry advocates about the future of aquaculture: overuse of antibiotics, human rights abuses, and scaling sustainably to feed the growing global demand for healthy protein without sacrificing planetary health. 

As someone who cares deeply about creating a more sustainable food system, writes about aquaculture regularly, and heads purchasing for a large food-service company that buys a lot of farmed shrimp, tilapia, and other products (but not salmon), I keep tabs on both what the NGOs are saying and how the seafood companies are responding. Overall, I came away from GOAL feeling like the leaders in the aquaculture industry recognize that the market is changing and are urging their peers to respond in kind. Shifts in consumer interest spurred by new science, media coverage, and advocacy campaigns can mean increased business risk or opportunity depending how a company adapts. 

Aquaculture can hold a position of a responsible choice or be seen as contributing to global crises. A few highlights of how this was addressed at GOAL: 

Kicking the Antibiotics Habit

Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar and lecturer at Princeton Environmental Institute and director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C., gave an extremely compelling lecture about the problem with aquaculture’s overreliance on antibiotics. He had several mic-drop moments when explaining the global health crisis caused by antibiotic resistance. In case you’ve missed the coverage in publications as varied as the New York Times and Cosmopolitan magazine, such superbugs are killing people in both developing and developed nations. 

And the trouble is accelerating: antibiotic resistance has “increased nearly three-fold in food animals between 2000 and 2018,” Dr. Laxminarayan reported. How and where is aquaculture contributing to the problem? Antibiotics that are medically important for humans are also used to treat a host of bacterial infections in commercially raised fish species, such as skin ulcerations, diarrhea, and blood sepsis. Aquaculture operations in the Asia-Pacific region of the world use nearly all the antimicrobials used in aquaculture, accounting for 93.8% of global consumption. (Later in the conference, several attendees mentioned that even in places like India, where the government bans use of antibiotics in aquaculture, drugs remain commonplace.) Dr. Laxminarayan pointed to U.S. brands such as Perdue, Trader Joe’s, and Panera that have gained market recognition for eliminating antibiotics in their land-based meat supply chains, suggesting that their success can be a playbook for the aquaculture industry to use to build goodwill. 

Improvements in Human Rights 

One of the most complicated and uncomfortable issues in aquaculture is the use of forced labor in seafood processing plants and aboard the vessels that capture fish for feed. When I attended GOAL for the first time in 2013, I was heartened just to hear the subject mentioned from the stage. Subsequent years saw breakout sessions dedicated to this hot topic, and this year it moved center stage to the plenary. 

Thailand has had a well-documented history of human rights abuses related to the seafood industry, including in processing for wild-caught and farm-raised seafood. Darian McBain, global director of corporate affairs and sustainability for Thai Union (a major seafood producer and processor based in Thailand), spoke this year about the great strides made in uncovering and addressing human rights issues in Thai Union’s supply chain, using a human-rights due diligence framework. Thai Union has been highly criticized for its practices in the past but more recently been lauded for its commitment to addressing the problem. Dr. McBain also noted that the Thai government has taken action in the human rights arena, too. While there’s still work to do, Thai Union’s framework — a six-pillar process that includes a public commitment statement, risk assessment, prevention, detection, remedy actions, and continuous monitoring and disclosure — is the type of approach that more industry players should be taking if we want to eradicate human rights issues in the seafood system overall. 

In addition, Birgitte Krogh-Poulsen of KIT Royal Tropical Institute presented an assessment of how social and labor standards from third-party certifications are creating change in the industry. The good news is that independently auditing certifications can lead to improvements overall. However, impacts are context dependent, and certification is not a proxy for overall behavior change. In short, certifications remain an important tool for social change, but they shouldn’t be the only tool in the kit. 

Feeding the Future

Fabrice DeClerck, science director for EAT, told attendees that aquaculture could play an important role in achieving “planetary health diets for nearly 10 billion people by 2050.” Among the Commission’s recommendations are an emphasis on plant-based foods and proteins, a reduction in red meat, and modest amounts of poultry and seafood. Sustainable aquaculture can be part of the solution by offering high-quality protein with minimized environmental impact. The EAT-Lancet Commission’s groundbreaking report has been widely supported by the usual choir of environmental NGOs, but the presentation at GOAL was a signal that mainstream global businesses are also listening. 

On the Horizon

One emerging topic I had hoped to hear about at GOAL this year is the humane treatment of seafood. (Here’s why I care how fish feel.) While the topic has been raised at the conference in the past, it’s still far out on consumers’ radar, so isn’t getting much play right now. But just as humane treatment of farm animals has become a hot-button issue for consumers, caring about how we treat fish is a wave that’s heading this way. 

Overall, the Global Aquaculture Alliance is providing timely education for its members — and I hope the seafood producers turn information into action. This momentum offers real hope that sustainable change can occur. 

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