We’ve been off to a busy start this January and only now, towards the end of the month have I found a moment to update this blog. There’s a lot going on in the world right now. And most of what is being discussed on the news these days is bad. But there is one news story doing the rounds that I find somewhat positive and that is the EAT Lancet Commission Report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Here is a PDF copy of the full report.
Writing this in Ireland, being a significant beef and dairy producing nation, it was interesting if not predictable to observe the backlash from the Irish Farmer’s Association. The media coverage of this report mainly focused on the issue of farming livestock and what other more sustainable meats we could be eating. Goat meat gained a bit of interest as a more sustainable meat alternative to beef. However, it was disappointing and a little surprising that aquaculture as a sustainable means of food production never came up in public debate within an island nation.
The Lancet report did touch on the topic of aquaculture and I think raised some valid points.
Here is a direct quote taken from page 30 of the report (footnotes excluded for ease of reading):
“Seafood provides 3·1 billion people with about 20% of their daily intake of animal protein and is particularly important for the world’s poorest for whom fish eaten whole constitute a crucial source of essential micro nutrients. With 90% of global wild fish stocks being overfished or fished at capacity, seafood extraction potential from the wild has probably reached a ceiling or is declining. Future expansion of seafood should come from aquaculture, which is one of the fastest growing food production sectors in the world. However, such rapid development can also have negative environmental and social effects including habitat destruction, overfishing for feed ingredients, and social displacement. Aquaculture production is projected to increase from 60 million tons in 2010 to 100 Mt in 2030, and up to 140 Mt by 2050. Key constraints include competition for feed resources and available land for freshwater farming. Research in sustainable aquaculture feeds is rapidly developing; however, development and implementation still remains in its infancy. Farmed non-feed dependent animal species (ie, mussels and oysters) might be a more sustainable alternative than farmed feed-dependent species and account for 31% of global aquaculture production. However, future development might be hampered by deteriorating water quality due to pollution and ocean acidification. The future environmental footprint of seafood depends on the species farmed, what they eat, and where aquaculture takes place. Aquaculture will not solve the challenges posed by feeding about 10 billion people healthy diets but could help steer production of animal source proteins towards reduced environmental effects and enhanced health benefits.”
I agree with report’s statement above. Especially where it states, “The future environmental footprint of seafood depends on the species farmed, what they eat, and where aquaculture takes place.”
I can’t speak with authority on all aspects of aquaculture farming but I do know, that just as food is important to human health and nutrition and how our food is produced is important to the environment- the same is true for seafood.
For example, many other abalone farms use artificial feeds for faster growth rates and ease of feeding. Unfortunately, while the artificial feeds do promote faster growth rates at an early stage, in many instances the abalone on an artificial diet have been found to begin developing gonads too early in their lifecycle which in turn stunts their overall growth. As well as creating other health issues for the animals, the artificial feed has the effect of fouling up the seawater and creating environmental issues for the abalone too. And importantly for the end consumer, an abalone reared on an artificial diet doesn’t taste particularly nice.
To talk about it in human terms - if you were to feed your child highly processed foods everyday from the day they were born, be it a hamburger, sugary cereal or even a highly processed vegan meat alternative, yes they will grow big very fast; but they won’t be big and healthy, they’ll be big and fat and develop chronic health issues as a result. And the food supply chain that exists to provide that highly processed food will in turn do serious environmental damage to the planet as is happening today and indeed, discussed in the Lancet report.
Meanwhile on our farm, we only feed the abalone fresh seaweed. This is a healthy food for the abalone and in turn, they taste much nicer when the time comes to eat them. Our hand-cut seaweed is supplied to us by local seaweed harvesters who have been harvesting sustainably for generations. I understand that not every part of the world has access to this abundance of seaweed, but I would see that as a great opportunity from a business and environmental perspective to start farming it, either as a stand alone seaweed farm or in conjunction with other aquaculture farms. Seaweed sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and is a nutritious food for humans and seafood. As stated before, I would like to see more of this kind of farming being supported and taking place around the world.
In Ireland, I have been informed that the the herring stocks have collapsed. Whether they were overfished for human feed or fish feed I do not know, but personally, I don’t think it matters. I don’t believe that we should be supporting a large export driven fisheries industry nor do I believe we should be promoting the aquaculture of species that rely so heavily on smaller wild caught fish as feed. I would like to see wild fish stocks given the chance to reestablish themselves
Abalone is just one type of shellfish that can be sustainably farmed for food, but there are plenty of others.
Oysters and mussels , as filter feeders are another. As well as being farmed for food, these should be grown in polluted areas not as human food but as a natural way of cleaning up the ocean environment. The Billion Oyster Project is an exciting project taking place in New York Harbour to improve the water quality and restore the oyster reefs there.
Maybe someday livestock and dairy farmers could be nudged into farming filter feeders to clean up the agricultural waste that has leached into the sea after years of spraying fertilisers and leakage from their silage and manure stores.
The issue of “where aquaculture takes place” is an interesting one. If I got a euro every time an “expert” cried out that “seafood belongs in the sea”, I’d be moderately wealthy. A land-based farmed seafood product can be just as good, or even better than a wild caught seafood product or a seafood product farmed in the open water. For certain species, land-based systems allow for more environmental control, from water quality, diet as well as labour safety. The sad reality is that red tides and ocean acidification are affecting sea life around the world and sea based aquaculture farms are not immune. From a food security perspective, there are many benefits to having more land-based recirculating aquaculture systems. And those land-based systems can be used to grow seaweeds as well as land vegetables using the nutrient rich water from the animal waste as a fertiliser.
This call to action to change our collective bad food habits is a positive first step towards a greener and healthier future. I just hope that those in industries that currently benefit from these bad eating habits can adapt and get on board with the changes that need to be made on a global scale.