Aquaculture can help feed the burgeoning world population, says Jose Villalon, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. aquaculture program. But the WWF wants “to make sure that [aquaculture] is done right.”
WWF has therefore spent a lot of time, and money, coordinating eight roundtable dialogues to develop global standards to “minimize the negative environmental and social impacts of aquaculture.” So far standards for tilapia, pangasius, abalone and bivalve shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels and scallops) are complete. Standards for shrimp, seriola (commonly known as amberjack), cobia, salmon and freshwater trout are expected to be finalized this year.
About five years ago, WWF commissioned an independent benchmarking study on about 20 aquaculture standards including food safety.
“Some of these standards used vague language, for example, on how to protect mangroves. We wanted standards that directly address the relevant issues, to significantly reduce the key impacts,” said Villalon. “We didn’t want to be ‘pie in the sky.’ We wanted to see a change in the water. We wanted the environmental and social aspects of aquaculture to be science-based and therefore measurable. We began with salmon and tilapia, and during the next four years we built up to 12 species.”
When the standards are finalized, they will be handed over to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), the independent organization that will organize certification. As with the Marine Stewardship Council before it, WWF has been instrumental in setting up the ASC.
Talking specifically about pangasius where WWF stirred up a lot of controversy over its involvement in the “Pangasius Lie” television program, which painted a very negative picture of pangasius production in Vietnam, Villalon was keen to emphasize WWF’s work in that country.
Between 2007 and 2010, more than 600 people participated in the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD), an independent and autonomous series of roundtable meetings, which the WWF initiated. “Each dialogue meeting was a public forum led by a steering committee of stakeholders,” said Villalon.
Five two-day meetings were held in different areas in Vietnam including Cantho, the center of the pangasius farming region. In addition, Villalon added, there were numerous conference calls with the dialogue’s technical working groups and process facilitation group, and several outreach meetings with Vietnamese farmers.
When in draft, the standards were posted on the Internet for two 60-day public comment periods. Says Villalon: “The findings were transparent.”
The PAD resulted in 103 standards for farming pangasius. “These standards directly seek to reduce what the stakeholders identified as the seven key environmental/social impacts for the industry,” he said. “The standards were finished in September 2010. We are now reviewing the documents and they will then be handed over to the ASC. [The standards] could be launched at the European Seafood Exposition. Auditors will be trained and certification bodies approved. At the end of 2011, or the first quarter of 2012, the first [pangasius] companies could be certified.”
It will not be easy to comply with the ASC standards, according to Villalon. Therefore, pangasius farmers should progress in a stepwise approach, seeking GlobalGAP certification first, he noted.
“The environmental and social aspects [of pangasius farming] are covered in a pretty good way by GlobalGAP, but the standards are considered by most NGOs and many stakeholders [of GlobalGAP] to be ‘more entry-level,’” said Villalon. “To significantly reduce the environmental/social impacts, producers should ultimately seek ASC compliance.”
Villalon admitted that people are tired of waiting for the ASC pangasius standards to be available for certification, but obviously feels the wait will be worth it. “The transparent, multi-stakeholder process resulted in the most credible farming standards available,” he said.
Just whether there needs to be yet another set of standards by which pangasius farming needs to be measured, is a moot point. The GlobalGAP approach has been described as “a full vertical integration system” by Peter Niedermeier, manager of Binca Seafoods. However, 21 retailers have already stated interest in, or a commitment to, ASC certification, according to Villalon.
And this will be the determining factor. The supermarket chains control the links in their seafood supply chains, and if they demand ASC certification then their suppliers will have to ensure that ASC certification is in place.
When it was pointed out to Villalon that major supermarket chains had been selling pangasius for years so were presumably satisfied with the standards they already had in place, he simply said that he didn’t know whether these standards matched the ASC standards. And that was the end of that discussion.
The Vietnamese may have been forced to adopt ASC certification as the means to get pangasius removed from the WWF red list, as some observers allege, but if so they obviously thought it was a price worth paying. Time will tell if they were right.