Food production, in aggregate, is considered to be the single largest source of environmental degradation globally. Fisheries around the world are suffering, and while the ecological impacts of this destruction could be catastrophic if not corrected, the environmental, economic and social impacts are also staggering. For concerned consumers, it’s important to think about how food was produced and transported and not just where it was produced.
A global study of salmon conducted by Dalhousie University, Ecotrust and the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology shows that sustainable food production may not be so sustainable. This three-year study points the way to sustainable salmon production and, along the way, debunks some food sustainability myths. Rather than pushing for organic or land-based production, or worrying about “food miles,” the study finds that the world can achieve greater environmental benefits by focusing on improvements to key aspects of production and distribution. The researchers chose salmon as their focus because it exemplifies important characteristics of modern food systems and offers unique opportunities for comparison.
The final report from the study isn’t due until 2010, but some initial findings provide strong indicators of the broader picture. For instance, the study finds that fish should swim and not fly. Globally, the majority of salmon fillets are consumed fresh and never frozen, which requires carbon intensive air freighting. Frozen fish is transported on container ships, however, which are the most efficient and carbon friendly food transporters.
The goal of the study is to understand how to develop sustainable food systems to feed a planet that will have a population of 9 billion by 2050. Ultimately, the study finds that the world can achieve greater environmental and community benefits by adopting simple production changes.
In the wake of these issues, programs such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have emerged. MSC certifies sustainably caught seafood and these initiatives are gaining ground, with major retailers, including Walmart, signing on. Though MSC focuses on what happens in the water, it doesn’t fully account for human and environmental costs of food production.
Also important, is that organic doesn’t mean the same in the fish world as it does with respect to crops. While organic farming of many crops offers benefits over conventional production, organic salmon production gives rise to impacts very similar to conventional farming, due to the use of resource intensive fish meals and oils.
The bottom line is that in many instances, instead of working with nature, people tend to work against it. We can and must do better than we are now by putting aside the debate over farmed versus wild salmon or the issue of food miles, in favor of a discussion about the global salmon trade from cradle-to-grave.
When completed, the final Global Salmon Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) will be available on the Ecotrust website.