Last week’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made for stark reading for anyone concerned about climate change. And we would argue that it should be cause for attention even for those that do not.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the report focuses on land use and climate change, and warns that increasing meat consumption, especially red meat, is fuelling global warming. The report also warned about the impact of food waste, inefficient land use, desertification and soil damage. Humans risk entering a vicious cycle where these factors speed up global warming, which in turn further damages the lands’ ability to absorb greenhouse gasses.
It’s sobering reading, particularly coming as it does after a period of extreme heatwaves in the Northern Hemisphere – 2019 is on course to be in the top three warmest years on record, as if further evidence were needed that these warnings must be acted on.
The report authors didn’t recommend that everyone suddenly becomes vegetarian or vegan, but they do recommend people in the West particularly should be cutting down on the meat they eat, especially red meat. Beef and lamb account for half of all the greenhouse emissions produced by animal products.
But it’s important to remember that this isn’t simply a straight choice between eating meat or eating a plant-based diet. If we want to meet the protein demands of a growing population, seafood must be part of the solution.
Fish is one of the most efficient converters of feed into high quality food, with a lower carbon footprint compared to other animal production systems. It is already vital to the health of billions around the world, and for those of us looking to reduce the environmental impacts of our diets it can provide an affordable alternative to red meat that is healthier as well as better for the planet.
But – and there’s always a but – we all know about the risks of overfishing, and no one wants to increase the pressure on our depleted oceans. That’s where responsible aquaculture comes in. Fish farming can relieve the pressures on wild fish stocks, and in doing so help provide affordable, healthy protein to the world without exacerbating the issues highlighted by the UN’s report.
When considering the carbon footprint of popularly consumed proteins, aquaculture is far more sustainable than other methods of food production. Farmed salmon produces a fraction of the carbon generated by the beef industry and the pressure on the environment represented by feed to grow stock is the lowest by far with seafood production. And even taking into account the use of land for feed production, aquaculture can make a big contribution to land preservation. One recent study calculated that if aquaculture provided the world’s additional protein requirements in 2050 instead of agriculture, a global total of between 727 and 747 million land hectares could be saved – that’s an area of land twice the size of India.
One word in this blog is more important than any other – responsible. If aquaculture is not done responsibly, as with all food production it can have a number of negative impacts. The world’s food and climate change crises won’t be solved with yet more irresponsible and badly planned food production systems.
ASC’s standards specifically address these potential impacts, requiring farms to meet requirements ranging from the strictly limited use of antibiotics, to the protection of local biodiversity and the monitoring of impacts to the sea floor, with many more in between (our Salmon Standard alone contains over 150 requirements). And our standards also include requirements to protect the local communities and fair wages and proper training, amongst other benefits, for the workers that help produce the fish. This means, if you’re looking to replace steak with seafood but want to help maintain our oceans, lakes, and rivers, and support fair workplaces wherever the seafood is raised, you should look for the ASC logo.
Aside from providing an alternative protein source to red meat, you might not think aquaculture would have much else to do with a report that focuses on land use, rather than water use – but you’d be wrong. Many fish farms use feed that includes crop-derived ingredients, including soy, wheat, and rice. At ASC we recognise that for aquaculture to be truly responsible it must recognise the impacts of these land-based resources as well as marine ingredients.
That’s why our upcoming Feed Standard will include requirements on the sourcing of both land and marine ingredients for feed. Our current standards already include requirements on feed, but the new Feed Standard will replace these with a more holistic approach that recognises the diverse and sometimes highly complex supply chains that can be involved in fish feed. The new standard is in its final stages of development, with pilot assessments currently underway, and it’s expected to be released towards the end of 2019.
The diversity of ingredients that can go into feed used in aquaculture shows how interconnected issues around food security, climate change and land use, among other things, can be. What we do at sea can affect the land, and both can affect, and be affected by, climate change. But the opportunities to solve problems are also interconnected – so, for example, aquaculture can help to take the pressure off the land and reduce the environmental impact of our diets. But only if it’s done responsibly.