Let’s begin with an apology: we’re going to be looking back at 2020, which is a year that many would like to forget and instead focus on the future.
That’s a very understandable feeling, and we don’t want to spend any time dwelling on you-know-what, but we do want to look back at what we and our partners did manage to achieve despite the unexpected changes to everyone’s plans.
But this isn’t just an exercise in self-congratulations: at ASC we value transparency, which means that we like to share what we are doing and why we are doing it with our stakeholders and the public. We think that’s the best way to maintain the trust of both the public and farmers in certification, which in turn is the best way to keep driving up standards in the industry. We’re also firm believers in the importance of learning from experience, and using it to continually improve.
Despite everything, there were still plenty of events to keep us busy in 2020 and help convince us that passion for responsible seafood is as strong as ever. We have been holding annual celebrations of responsible seafood in a number of countries for many years now – notably France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German-speaking countries, Japan and Australia. Our fantastic events team are kept very busy – though fortunately for them these weeks are spread across the year! In 2020 – of course – these events featured a lot more virtual and online elements, such as recipe tips, videos, and competitions. The highlight was probably in Australia in March, where a song was composed by Jacco Steendam especially for the week, and was performed beautifully by the fifth grade choir from the Our Lady of Fatimah Catholic Primary School in New South Wales.
Going all the way back to last January (remember that?) we released our most in-depth global consumer survey to date, in which we asked thousands of seafood consumers in seven countries in Europe, Asia, and North America for their opinions and habits when it comes to responsible seafood. The results were stark: two-thirds of consumers around the world called for ‘radical’ or ‘significant’ change to feed the world’s growing population.
Looking back at this survey now reminds us that there are other big long-term challenges that will still need the world’s attention once we have overcome the current crisis. Encouragingly, there was also a clear desire among consumers to do their part: Around two-thirds of consumers wanted to use their own food choices to fight climate change, and over 70 per cent thought that claims about sustainability should be independently verified.
Monitoring & Evaluation
We mentioned that we like transparency and using our experiences to improve our performance: that was perfectly encapsulated in August when we published our first ever Monitoring & Evaluation report. The M&E report used thousands of data points from hundreds of certified farms to analyse trends in their performance – made possible by the ASC requirement that all farm audit data is made public.
Among the report’s findings and case studies, it revealed that ASC shrimp farms have increased by 50% their ongoing compliance to the environmental performance requirements between 2014 and 2018.
Improvements and Consultation
Another angle of ASC’s transparency is the desire to involve stakeholders and the public in key decisions and reviews, and this was the driving factor behind a significant change to the ASC programme that went live in December. Variance Requests (VRs) are a vital part of any credible global certification programme, providing the necessary means to adapt a global standard to specific local conditions without lowering requirements. ASC’s updated VR process gives greater opportunity for stakeholders such as local communities and NGOs to contribute to decisions on local variances to ASC standards. Relevant stakeholders, including local communities, are now proactively approached for feedback on any potential variances involving a particular farm.
The consultation process is very familiar to ASC, with all new standards and reviews subject to at least one round of public consultation – last year this included a review to the Shrimp Standard, and new requirements that have been developed for the small but growing number of land-based farms that use Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS).
If you missed out on your chance to have your say on any of last year’s consultations, don’t worry: this year is promising to be a very busy one for ASC, and we will once again be seeking feedback! Our Standards & Science team has been making incredible progress in the project to develop a new Aligned Standard – this will be applicable to all ASC species, benefiting farmers with a more efficient and consistent approach that retains the robust ASC requirements. This is, understandably, a huge piece of work, but this year the environmental standards that have been developed for it will be ready for public consultation.
That’s just one of the things ASC has planned for 2021, but it sums up our aims for the future: constantly reviewing and improving our standards and how they are applied, but always involving our stakeholders and the public in how we do that. There are many more projects in the pipeline, too – but we wouldn’t want to spoil every surprise.
Finally, what about certified farms? With travel restrictions in place around the world, there was an obvious impact on audits. For that reason, we updated our auditing guidelines to introduce a bit of flexibility – allowing certain aspects of the audit to be done remotely, for example – without weakening the standards. But we really appreciate the hard work of both farms and auditors who rose to these challenges in 2020, and through this work there were around 200 more ASC certified farms at the end of the year. Consumers are also getting more choice of responsible seafood: around 7,000 more certified products are now available, bringing the total to over 28,000 products in 90 countries.
And that’s the perfect way to end, because the ASC mission to improve aquaculture can only be achieved if consumers are looking for the ASC logo on seafood and rewarding responsible farmers. In 2021 we will continue to work to make it easier for consumers to find that logo and building trust between shoppers, retailers, processors and producers. It’s been a year of tough challenges, and there are more challenges to come, but if we all work together we are more than capable of meeting those challenges head on.