NEWS 2020-01-14

A new seafood narrative

Seafood sustainability is still only marginally considered in global policy talks on food production, trade and consumption. That needs to change, according to new research.

 The discourse around sustainable seafood practices, where aquaculture plays a central role, started in the 1990s, but seafood still remains poorly integrated into food policy and research. A new article in the journal Global Environmental Change, co-authored by Beijer researchers Patrik Henriksson, Max Troell and Malin Jonell, all also affiliated with Stockholm Resilience Centre, makes a case for changing the narrative around seafood sustainability. This research effort, led by Michael Tlusty, University of Massachusetts, brings together researchers from 11 institutions spread across the world.

The full picture of seafood sustainability

Tlusty and colleagues claim that a holistic definition of sustainability will need to incorporate the role seafood and practices around seafood production play in ocean health, food security, trade, consumption and human wellbeing more broadly:

“We argue that to maximize the positive contributions that seafood can make to sustainable food systems, the conventional narratives that prioritize seafood’s role in promoting ‘ocean health’ need to be reframed and cover a broader set of environmental and social dimensions of sustainability. The focus of the narrative also needs to move from a producer-centric to a ‘whole chain’ perspective that includes greater inclusion of the later stages with a focus on food waste, by-product utilization and consumption. “, they write.

Extend responsibility to all actors

Co-author Patrik Henriksson explains the current lopsided nature of the seafood value chain:

“A bias towards production stages in the value chain places a major burden on fishers and farmers frequently located in low-income countries, while actors located throughout the rest of the value chain receive far less attention and pressure to improve.”

Using a food systems approach will extend the responsibility to all the actors in the value chain such as service providers, processors, distributors and, importantly, consumers.

Furthermore, broadening the focus would also mean considering things such as energy efficiency and food waste. The article highlights the efforts the FAO:s Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction  in this regard.

Link to FAO initiative

Wide range of ocean threats

Outside of harmful fishing practices that are directly tied to seafood, oceans today face a myriad range of threats such as dead zones, pollution, warming and acidification – all of which in turn have direct and indirect impacts on seafood sustainability. It is time that NGOs, states and other sustainability bodies create standards that include this wider range of ocean threats.

Outside of oceans, fish is also being increasingly sourced from aquaculture where agricultural products are used as fish feed. Studying the linkages between terrestrial and aquatic systems is therefore essential to producing and consuming seafood sustainably.

More than one kind of fish

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, seafood comprises around 2500 species spanning seaweed, finfishes, molluscs, crustaceans, cnidarians, echinoderms, amphibians, and reptiles.

But when reporting on seafood’s environmental and/or nutritional impacts, this diversity is lost as species tend to be lumped together in higher groups like farmed fish, pelagic fish and demersal fish.

Co-author Malin Jonell explains why it is vital to consider the diversity of fish consumed:

“Taking a larger spectrum of aquatic products into account across the global food system would enable greater recognition of those species that contribute to supplies of animal-source food, rather than only those that are dominant in high-income country markets.”

The authors stress the need to put into practice what they call a ‘seafood systems approach’.

“This more holistic approach can better equip the seafood industry, NGOs and governments to keep oceans, the fish in it, supporting resource systems also including land, and the people dependent on seafood healthy in the long run,” summaries Max Troell.

Tlusty, M.F., P. Tyedmers, M. Bailey, F. Ziegler, P.J.G. Henriksson, C. Béné, S. Bush, R. Newton, F. Ashe, D. C. Little, M. Troell and M. Jonell. 2019. Reframing the sustainable seafood narrative. Global Environmental Change 59:101991.

To publication