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Domestic or Imported? An Assessment of Seafood's Carbon Footprints and Sustainability

30 November 2015

Research by Anna K. Farmery et al, University of Tasmania, Australia, has found that the distance seafood is transported is not the main determinant of food sustainability. Despite the increased distance between production and consumption, carbon footprints of meals from imported seafood are similar to meals consisting of domestically produced seafood, and sometimes lower, depending on the seafood consumed.


Global food trade is increasing at a faster rate than food production (Ercsey-Ravasz et al., 2012) and population growth (FAOSTAT/Tradestat, 2009) and the distances between production and consumption are rapidly increasing (Thomas et al., 2014; Watson et al., 2015).

Global supply chains place great demands on ecosystems and natural resources (Tilman and Clark, 2014; Wible et al., 2014) and localised food systems have been promoted within academic literature, public policy and alternative food movements as a more sustainable option (Hendrickson et al., 2002; La Trobe and Acott, 2000; Lang and Heasman, 2009; Legislative Assembly of Ontario, 2013).

Trends in trade of fish and fishery products run counter to aspirations of localised production as they are some of the most-traded food commodities worldwide (FAO, 2014), with the world’s major importers, the United States of America (USA) and Japan dependent on imports for about 60% and 54%, respectively, of their seafood consumption (FAO, 2012).

Compared to agriculture, fisheries are poorly represented in food policy (Lang and Heasman, 2009) and sustainable seafood policies are being developed in isolation from other food policy.

Conventionally, seafood sustainability has tended to be focused on issues concerning the harvesting of fish as a natural resource (Olson et al., 2014) and as a result, management of sustainability
within capture fisheries is concerned with ecological issues such as overfishing, stock biomass and recruitment, and in some more complex management regimes, ecosystem impacts and bycatch
through an ecosystem-based fishery management (EBFM) approach (Hilborn et al., 2015; Zhou et al., 2010).

Similarly, management of sustainability in aquaculture systems is largely concerned with production issues including impacts of invasive species on local biodiversity (Silva et al., 2009), disease control
(Bondad-Reantaso et al., 2005), impacts of chemical use on environmental and human health (Burridge et al., 2010), eutrophication of natural waterways, sensitive land conversion, and the use of wild fish in feed (Cao et al., 2015; Diana, 2009; Naylor et al., 2000).

Consideration of the broader supply chain impacts of seafood supply is relatively recent (Avad?´ and Fre´on, 2013; Henriksson et al., 2012; Parker, 2012).

Rising greenhouse-gas emissions are affecting food production from the land and sea (Campbell, 2014; IPCC, 2014) and the supply of seafood contributes to these rising emissions (Tyedmers et al.,
2005). Achieving a more holistic determination of seafood sustainability requires consideration of emissions generated along seafood supply chains, such as product carbon footprints, as well as
traditional measures of sustainability at capture or culture.

Australia provides an interesting case study for examining different sustainability measures, and the compatibilities or trade-offs that emerge between them.

Australia has been ranked in the top five countries for fisheries management (Pitcher et al., 2009) and the majority of commercial fish stocks in Australia have been assessed as sustainable (Woodhams et al., 2013). However, nearly 72% of the seafood consumed in Australia is imported
(Ruello, 2011) and growth in consumption of imports is expected to continue into the future, in line with government food frameworks (DAFF, 2013) and to meet consumer demand for low-cost seafood products (Department of Agriculture, 2013).

This paper quantifies an aspect of sustainability that is not typically assessed in the production and distribution of select seafood products available in Australia, the carbon footprint (CF).

We use life cycle assessment (LCA) to compare the CF of three domestic wild-capture products with imports that are readily substituted by consumers. We identify patterns in the emissions of different species, production methods and supply chain stages, and examine these results in the context of existing seafood sustainability assessments.

We also identify the trade-offs and opportunities in combining LCA with existing seafood sustainability criteria and discuss the need for broader assessments to operationalise holistic, system-wide concepts of food sustainability and inform emerging food policy, in particular in terms of
reducing carbon emissions.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

November 2015

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