By Bas Geerts, ASC Standards Director
The ASC label on products assures buyers that their seafood purchase has been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Making sure that seafood is responsibly produced is of paramount importance for ASC.
A supply of responsible seafood now and in the future
The aquaculture sector has grown vastly in recent years and it is expected to grow a lot more over the coming decades. Although this is good news from a food security angle, this rapid growth may well come with undesirable and unintended side effects, including negative ecological and social impacts.
That is why environmental and social responsibility are the key pillars upon which the ASC programme is based. These inform the development of new standards, evolution of our current standards, and provide a guiding framework to address emerging new issues wherever possible, while ensuring we stay in close contact with a wide array of the sector’s stakeholders.
ASC’s role in this rapid growth is to help buyers in the market understand and acknowledge the significance of responsible fish farming; while encouraging consumer demand for responsibly farmed fish.
ASC’s core principles
To address environmental and social impacts effectively, the ASC standards for responsible farming have been organised around seven core principles, which require:
- legal compliance with national and local laws and regulations
- preservation of natural habitats, local biodiversity and ecosystem
- preservation of water resources and quality
- responsible use of feed and other resources
- preservation of the diversity of the wild population
- improved fish health and controlled and responsible use of antibiotics and chemicals
- farms to be socially responsible toward their workers and the local community.
Requirements in the standard are metric and performance-based. This means that the standards do not describe what a farm should do, but rather what it should achieve (performance level); providing a clear metric, measurable value. This enables innovation, as farms continue to improve their performance, while being certified. A metric and performance-based approach also enables more objective assessments. These are important differences with regards to other standards.
The social requirements in the standards are based on International Labour (ILO) conventions and focus on the farm workers and the community around the farm. For the farm workers, requirements include safe working conditions, fair wages and working hours, the right to take collective action (e.g. join labour unions) and access to transportation, among others.
The community around the farm is also important because this too might be negatively affected by the farm’s operations. This could be related, for example, to matters such as water contamination, pollution or truck movements to and from the farm.
To adhere to the social requirements, a farm must regularly, effectively and proactively reach out to relevant stakeholders. This includes holding regular open and fair meetings in the local community. And, independent, qualified social auditors assess that the farm is meeting all of the requirements during the farm’s audit.
The ASC standards are developed in such a way to make sure a farm’s social impact is limited to the fullest extent possible. This doesn’t mean that everyone’s requests are completely accepted, but all interests are considered in a fair and transparent way. The auditors will assess whether effective practices have been put in place by the farm to respect their workers and the community and they will also determine whether the processes are carried out respecting the standard’s intent.
From an environmental perspective siting of a farm is of critical importance. Nature conservation areas must be respected and protected and the impact on the wider environment and biodiversity have to be considered.
Once established, the farm’s negative impacts need to be limited as much as possible. For example, water needs to be treated properly; and, the use of treatments needs to be carefully regulated, documented and monitored. To minimise further impact on the environment, discarded water at the end of production must not exceed (metric) limits set out in the standards to prevent harmful effects on the local environment.
Another aspect is aimed at minimising the impacts of the farm’s inputs, a major one being fish feed ingredients. Its main ingredients need to meet strict requirements prescribed in our standards. To drive further improvements we are in the process of developing a separate feed standard. The final version of this standard is due to be published in mid-2016.
Food safety and animal welfare
ASC’s standards do not have specific requirements covering food safety or animal welfare as these are not the programme’s goals. The ASC programme was established with a mission to transform aquaculture towards environmental sustainability and social responsibility. This decision was taken when the standard development processes started in 2003 and was reconfirmed in the ASC’s deed when the organisation was officially founded in 2010.
Nonetheless, since an ASC certified farm needs to apply best practices for animal health and husbandry this does benefit the quality of the product, contributing to food safety, and ensures the animals are cared for well, contributing to improved animal welfare at the farm. For example, the standards include strict requirements around the use of antibiotics, maintaining good quality water, and growth ratios for fish, which can only be achieved if the fish are healthy and farmed in good conditions.
The ASC standards do not try to replace well-operating and well-respected specific welfare or food safety standards. Many of the welfare or food safety issues go beyond the farm, which is the ASC’s unit of certification. Other existing standards are available to meet such requirements directly. The ASC has taken a proactive approach to facilitate an effective and efficient farm assessment against different standards to cover this wider array of issues. Joint checklists to this extent were published earlier this year.
Lastly, the ASC realises all too well that it operates in an ever-changing world with changing stakeholders’ needs. Within this changing reality the ASC will maintain alignment with relevant stakeholders to jointly identify improvement areas so it continues to contribute effectively to its mission: transforming aquaculture towards environmental sustainability and social responsibility using efficient market mechanisms that create value across the chain.