ANALYSIS - The Seafood Expo North America in Boston earlier this week was as always an overwhelming affair of seafood exhibitionism, much of it breaded and deep-fried, but some also raw and delicious, writes Øistein Thorsen, Principal Consultant, Benchmark Sustainability Science.
A noteworthy trend this year was the almost ubiquitous use of the word “Sustainable” on banners and signs on the trade floor, and the more critical discussion about the merits of the “S”-word in the parallel conference sessions. I had the pleasure of speaking on one of these panels, entitled “the Changing Landscape of Sustainable Seafood”.
Firstly, it is important to celebrate the fact that industry, NGOs and academia find themselves in a place where sustainability is now discussed in a deeper way and outside of a simplistic framing of whether one is “for or against.”
Everyone now agrees that environmental, economic and ethical sustainability is the foundation to ensure we can provide healthy, nutritious and affordable seafood today, without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to do the same.
As Chef Moonen rightly pointed out during our panel, everyone now understands we can’t expect to get more food out of our environment if we don’t take care of it. It is therefore a positive sign that while the concept of sustainability has been accepted by all, leaders in the field are not pretending the “job is done.”
Sustainability is a journey and the only way to move forward in the right direction is to continuously challenge everybody to not just use short phrases like “I am sustainable.” We must demonstrate what we are doing, the impacts we are having and be able to substantiate any claims we make. It is without this critical dialogue that the concept risks becoming meaningless.
Secondly, I think the path to ensuring the sustainability of seafood starts by breaking down some artificial boundaries that we’ve put up between a variety of “us” and “them” groups and instead put our goal in a larger context.
For example, the sustainable seafood movement have wasted a lot of time and energy creating the illusion in consumers’ minds that they have a realistic choice to make between “wild” and “farmed” seafood, and that the right choice is always the former.
While some have been telling consumers to avoid farmed fish, wild caught seafood as stagnated and aquaculture has grown to now account for over half of all the seafood we eat.
Removing this “either/or” framing of the argument will allow us to join forces in promoting one larger common goal: namely to improve the role high quality, safe, healthy and nutritious seafood play in helping people feed their families, live healthy lives and care for our planet.
Working together, with a shared vision we are better placed to put in place the right standards and incentives that will remove or improve bad practices, and encourage good practice. Striving for a “net-positive” seafood sector means investing in solutions, whether that be new and better fishing gear that minimizes by-catch and reduces seabed damage, or inspiring fish farmers everywhere to begin a race to the top for better practices and quality.
Thirdly, we need to reduce consumer confusion and fear of fish by placing seafood center plate of the sustainable food movement. We have to ‘reach across the isle’ and start working with our terrestrial colleagues and begin to share experiences and learn from our collective successes and mistakes.
Together I think we can begin to tell a more understandable, a more holistic, and a tastier story about what constitutes sustainable food choices. This will also allow us to break out of thinking about food only as a commodity.
We have an opportunity right now to capitalize on the growing interest people are having in how their food is produced by improving our practices, being better at telling our stories, and create brands for our products based on their story-, quality-, and community- attributes. This will allow us to move the sustainability agenda away from simply ‘doing less bad’, to instead generate genuine positive benefits for animals, our environment, farmers, consumers and the communities that rely on seafood for a living.
You can follow Øistein on twitter: @vinothorsen.