What does certification really mean?
Thursday,22 April,2010 15:18:32
Over the years, I have worked with a variety of clients, many of whom have an interest in learning more about what certification is, what it means, and what it can do for them. Having registered biologics with the USDA, drugs for aquaculture with the FDA and more recently, with the Aquaculture Certification Council and the Certifying Bodies that have been contracted to audit against their standards, NSF-Surefish and Global Trust, I believe that I have a solid understanding of what auditing entails. Ideally it affirms that a process or processes with a specific set of desired outcomes is performed in a manner that ensures that it is reproducible and that the final products meet some set of standards that have been deemed to be essential both from the standpoint of the manner in which they are manufactured and the quality of the final product.
It seems clear to me that standards that are deemed essential are not always the same when one considers aquaculture operations. Inarguably, when someone develops a vaccine, it has to be safe and effective and there will usually be widespread agreement about how to ensure this. However, when one is rearing fish or shrimp (or any shellfish or bivalve), while there is consensus about the final product, i.e. it should be a cost effective, healthy food source there is some disagreement about what the components of the process have to be to achieve this.
Over the last 4 years, I have audited more than 40 processing plants as well as ten or so fish and shrimp farms and shrimp and salmon hatcheries against the BAP standards. At the same time, I have been closely following the development of other certification schemes. It is clear that there does not appear to be universal agreement as to either what the standards should contain or what they should actually accomplish.
I think that most of us who work with these standards and who are knowledgeable about all of the issues would agree that there are a number of critical elements that any meaningful set of standards should contain:
1. Production of seafood by aquaculture in systems that ensures minimal environmental impact and high probabilities that the processes can continue as long as there is a market for the end products. This could be termed sustainability. Recall from my earlier blog though that there are some disparate ideas about how this is defined.
2. A balance between the needs of the company owners and the needs of the people who make the company what it is, the employees.
3. The use of science to further the production process. This should not be pseudo-science nor based on policies or desires of individuals or organizations that cannot support their concerns with valid scientific data.
4. Ensuring that the final product is harvested in a humane fashion and moved through the processing plant in a manner that maximizes the safety of the final product to the consumer.
5. Has the flexibility to adapt to the needs of a pliable process, regulatory constraints and the requirements of the consumer base.
As I audit and follow the development of standards, I am seeing what seems to be a distinct disparity as to a critical philosophical underpinning of the entire process. Some standards appear to be intended to be exclusionary. Only a relatively small number of farms will be able to meet the standards without significant and substantial (i.e. costly) changes in how the farms operate. Others lay out a framework that allows a much wider base of farm operators to potentially comply. All claim to provide a sustainable product.
I wonder which approach actually serves the consumers best interests and how one can have multiple sets of standards all of which purport to provide the same assurances, yet some are intended to benefit only a select few? Not all standards are the same. Do they meet the goals of the aforementioned points? Or are they written so as limit the sources of product deemed sustainable, creating a demand/supply dynamic that drives prices up for a select few providers without really ensuring that the product is produced under conditions that make it any more sustainable than someone else’s products?
Certification of aquaculture products is still in the relative early stages and while the market has yet to show that they value certified product over non-certified in terms of a willingness to pay more for a certified product, there are some signs that this will happen. At this time there are several different standards that products and processes are audited against with the need to certify being largely driven by the purveyors of the product to the consumer. In the not too distant future, I expect to see some consolidation occurring of the standards and hopefully demand beginning to be driven by the consumer with a concomitant willingness to pay more for certified product.
I am not sure however whose interest will be served if any one certification scheme seeks to make the groups that are certifiable such a small club that only a few can join and further seeks to create the perception that sustainability can only be defined in their terms. Certainly as consumers, we are all better off encouraging wide spread sustainability as protein produced by aquaculture continues to become an ever increasing percentage of our seafood consumption.
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Sustainability: Catchword or reality?
Thursday,15 April,2010 09:50:09
Some forty years ago I found myself thinking about sustainability while day dreaming in an upper level ecology course at the University of Maryland. I wondered how a rapidly reproducing human population could manage to not significantly damage niches that were clearly required for ongoing sustenance. One of the solutions I envisioned was sustainable aquaculture. It could take the pressure off of the fisheries. This is a significant paradigm shift from hunting to farming and it only seemed natural that this was the way of the future.
Over the last few years I have seen the term sustainable become the subject of much discussion and debate. From where I sit it looks like there is really no universal agreement as to what this actually means although there does seem to be widespread agreement that it must include some reference to future generations. What would appear to be a relatively simple concept is in fact far from it. Sustainable aquaculture practices are not the same as sustainable fishery practices, although there can be some overlap.
I would think that sustainability actually would simply mean that the activities that we engage in today will not negatively affect the ability of future generations to engage in the same activities. Yet somewhere along the line for aquaculture, GMO has been deemed to be a component of sustainability and despite the fact that fish meal production has remained constant for many years and many authorities would likely agree that it is a sustainable resource it has also become a key issue in determining the sustainability of aquaculture.
Humans require food. All food production requires some form of environmental impact. Techniques that damage the environment at the expense of food production can result in a variety of impacts, ranging from a temporary disruption to permanent displacement of entire cultures and serious long term environmental degradation. Proper use of the scientific method is a very powerful tool for understanding how to reach the balance that ensures true sustainability. Opinions that are not based on scientific fact but on groundless fears and personal perspectives should not be elements of any discourse on the nature of sustainable seafood production whether fishery or aquaculture based. Science is a tool and like any tool for it to work the best, it has to be used correctly. Misuse of science can result in an erosion of the truth rather than building the solid foundation that is needed to ensure real sustainability. Question what it means the next time you buy a seafood product that you are told is sustainable. Don’t hesitate to ask. You would be surprised to find that out some products that are sold as being sustainable are hardly and others that are accused of not being so are more than likely. It’s all in the definition!
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Farmed versus fished: Complementary not exclusionary
Tuesday,6 April,2010 10:49:05
As the global weather engine adjusts and localizes climates change, there is a great deal of concern that this will have negative impacts on fisheries. It seems obvious that climate changes will affect migration patterns and the host of other complex factors that impact fisheries with concomitant changes in abundance and distribution.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) proclaimed in 2009 that limiting access to the shrimp fishery would benefit the long term sustainability of the fishery. I think that you could say this about any fishery. Most shrimp are fished by trawling. This practice damages the environment to a substantial degree and has broad reaching negative impacts across entire ecosystems. This is a clear cut instance where less would be better for all.
The farming of shrimp currently supplies upwards of 50% of the total shrimp consumed and no one can predict where this will eventually settle. Estimates are that we currently produce around 3 million MTs of farmed shrimp annually. Although there are parties who would have you believe otherwise, the vast majority of farmed shrimp is produced responsibly and sustainably. With the advent of certification programs such as Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) by the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and the non-profit Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC), and more recently Global Gap Standards and the soon to be realized WWF Standards, there are strong market forces in play that will ensure that only product that is produced in a socially and environmentally responsible (read sustainable) manner finds its way onto our dinner plates.
Aquaculture is an important source of high quality protein for a burgeoning world population and a great way to take pressure off of the fisheries ensuring that there is always plenty for those who have no choice but to rely on wild animals for their protein and leaving the masses to enjoy the fruits of farm produced protein. Supporting organizations such as the GAA and the ACC ensure continued access to responsibly produced seafood.
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