Change on the water, or change out of pocket?
Farmed seafood producers whose products are traded internationally typically have their operations certified for a number of things, including but not limited to environmental sustainability, quality assurance and food safety. To meet the demands of this global marketplace, said producer often is required to earn multiple certifications, some covering the same checkpoints previously met for another eco-label. The strength of the standards may vary, but only by a matter of degree, and usually only experts can tell the difference.
At some point, and this has been the fear for some time, the production end of the supply chain will wonder what the point of it all is, and whether certification truly is the key to wide market access or an onerous and inevitable cost of doing business, like a tax. Is certification truly pushing aquaculture toward best practices? Or is it layering expenses on producers and pushing up costs for consumers, most of whom wouldn’t know an eco-label from a Nutrition Facts panel?
Perhaps that time has already come — At the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s (GAA) GOAL conference last month in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Le Van Quang of Minh Phu Seafood Corp. took the stage and sternly stated that he’d had enough of all the certifications. One of his presentation slides included this statement: “Minh Phu has to use 50 percent of its time for meeting aquaculture and processing standards.” Mr. Quang proposed a united (read: harmonized) set of standards for hatcheries, farms, quality, production conditions and human welfare, earning a round of applause from the audience.
But in this free-market global economy, there exist three major standards for environmental stewardship — GAA’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), GlobalGAP and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) — and for the sake of sanity we’ll focus on those solely.
Since Mr. Quang’s statement was made at an event produced and organized by GAA, I asked Peter Redmond, director of marketplace development for GAA, what he thought of such critical comments.
“I think he’s totally right. It’s what everybody wanted to say but didn’t want to say it. We’re hitting a nerve. He’ll be one of the [shrimp] farms with ASC certification, and the poor guy can’t understand why,” Redmond said. “They’ve got BAP, GlobalGAP and I think organic. They need another one on top? If you have 10 certifications, the cost is built into the product. But are we really artificially inflating the cost of goods? I think it’s nuts what we’re doing.”
Redmond echoes many who lament the fact that the major aquaculture eco-label schemes are certifying the same producers many times over while the majority of the world’s farmed seafood supply — the generally accepted estimation nowadays is a robust 80 percent — remains uncertified. “We run the risk of alienating those sectors,” he continued. “If you can’t impact this 80 percent then go home. We’ve satisfied most of the needs of our market. But if you certify farms that are already certified, you’re just generating cash flow.”
The brainchild of the World Wildlife Fund (much like the Marine Stewardship Council), ASC is the newest kid on the aquaculture-certification block, so to speak, but is arguably the most powerful. Founded in 2012, it’s growing its brand at a rapid rate, particularly with Vietnam’s pangasius sector, 20 percent of which is already ASC-certified. CEO Chris Ninnes fielded several questions this week on the subject of multiple certifications and potentially redundant costs and he made the point, on more than one occasion, that to look at certification in terms of cost only is “to miss the point entirely.”
“By promoting best practices, certification established meaningful benchmarks that when achieved bring benefits, both financially and socially through improved relations with local communities and farm workers,” he said. ASC-certified Vietnamese pangasius producer Thuan An, he used as an example, reduced its mortality rate to about 10 percent within the first year after achieving certification, which in turn reduced its production costs. “Driving improvements … not only reduces the related production costs, but also drives meaningful cost savings.”
ASC, like MSC, is disparaged by certain circles of the seafood industry for being part of the massive “panda machine” that holds what some feel is undue influence over the world’s seafood supplies. One outspoken critic recently told another seafood trade publication that ASC is “bullying” Vietnam’s pangasius sector to enter the ASC program or face the risk of being considered no good.
“This is not an approach endorsed nor practiced by the ASC,” said Ninnes. “Our mission is to transform aquaculture toward sustainability. Joining the ASC program is voluntary. For us to pressure farms to join our program would be counteractive.”
The benefits of certification, he added, include market access; trust of various stakeholders, authorities and potential investors; acquisition of social capital from improved relations with local communities; and the aforementioned cost savings.
At GOAL, much was made about retailers’ role in driving forward the conversation about sustainable aquaculture and how they should take a lead position in setting eco-label benchmarks. But making certification palatable for producers “lies in certification’s court,” said Redmond.
“I don’t struggle with three standards,” Redmond said. “We’ve had the opportunity to collaborate. Where are the commonalities? Can we reduce our costs that way? There should be more cooperation. We’re in trouble of getting a fair amount of backlash. [Producers] get this feeling that there is no choice in what you do, this is what you have to do. This isn’t change of any kind, it’s just restamping something. I can’t fault retailers as a rule; they make a statement about what they want to do and we have to deliver against it.”
Producers are the ones in a bind here, with little room to maneuver if they want to maintain access to key markets like the United States and Europe, each with different demands. With certification costs rising, and consistent pressure on prices from buyers, producers will continually seek ways to cut costs. If quality suffers as a result, it’ll take more than an eco-label to win back lost customers.