This article, published last week in Seafood.com News, summarizes our thinking after a recent trip to China and Hong Kong, to attend the Seafood Summit.
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS by John Sackton [News Analysis] Sept. 13, 2012
The big question overhanging last week’s 10th Seafood Summit in Hong Kong was the future of seafood sustainability in China.
Seaweb sponsors the Summit to bring together NGO’s, funders, and industry to focus on seafood sustainability, and the financial and logistical challenges to bring the meeting to Asia were considerable.
For example, no overall industry sponsor was found for the 2012 Seafood Summit. Instead, a number of companies made smaller contributions. High Liner Foods, Loblaws, Norpac, Luen Thai Fishing Ventures, and Taylor Shellfish Farms all were among the industry sponsors of the meeting, but major funding was provided by USAID, The Global FISH Alliance (also funded by USAID), WWF, GAA and others. Further, major support for SeaWeb comes from the Packard Foundation, the Gordon and Better Moore Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.
Overall registrations were down from the record 700 attendees in Vancouver in 2011, and were around 500. Although there were not major Chinese or Asian company sponsors, Seaweb did secure the participation of major Chinese exporters like Zhangzidao and Guolian. Also attending were Chinese retailers such as Carrefour, and Disney’s Hong Kong foodservice. In addition, several tuna companies like Tri-Marine and Pacifical were there, along with Asian giants like Thai Union and CP.
Seaweb executives thought the conference was a good start for raising the profile of sustainability in Asia.
In China, the future of seafood means the future of aquaculture, as the government is actively reducing the volume of wild catch, and future growth will be from farmed species. As a result a lot of the focus of the conference was on aquaculture - but as many speakers pointed out, the Chinese have been practicing aquaculture for over 2000 years - and don’t expect to be lectured by outsiders about how to make their 2000 year old industry 'sustainable'.
Following the Seafood Summit, I had the opportunity to take a tour of fish and shrimp farms in Southern China, and there appeared to be a disconnect between the approach of most of the NGO participants and the reality of the industry. Specifically, the current focus on waste and effluent standards seemed to miss the situation of small farms; and the focus on traceability did not work well for the live fish trade, which is where much of the sea cage aquaculture production goes.
Much of the NGO effort in the west is focused on checklists - requiring the producers to meet certain performance criteria in a range of categories, from waste management and water quality certifications and feed standards to fishery management, stock status, oversight, and governance and giving them a grade on all these aspects.
Very little NGO effort is focused on quality and safety - the two biggest issues for Chinese consumers.
The sustainable fisheries partnership, (SFP) which has had a tilapia project underway in Hainan province in cooperation with the government, gets this very clearly, and says that China improvements have to be on a ‘win - win’ basis with proper commercial incentives for the Chinese farmers and buyers.
For example, food safety is improved with better standards for water management - and this is a powerful incentive for the government and producers - rather than meeting a buyer’s check list that a water management plan has to be part of a certification. As a result, the SFP is taking a ‘zone’ approach trying to upgrade the practices of all farmers within a particular zone as they all impact each other.
The concerns over food safety, which have been magnified by significant scandals in China, are a lever that can prompt both producers and the government to enforce standards that have the effect of improving sustainability, even if that is not the primary goal.
The second way in which sustainability is being driven is through the standards being set by large buyers. It is very clear that increasingly purchasers like Walmart, Carrefour, and Disney want to adopt global standards, and not have one standard in China and one in the west. This is particularly important in terms of food safety and brand protection - but it extends to sustainability as well. The impact of these buyer specifications is another powerful lever which will change sustainability practices in China. China is particularly well suited to the Global Seafood Sustainablty Iniative (GSSI), as buyers are interested in a cost effective standard that meets basic sustainability goals and can be applied across a wide range of suppliers.
What will not happen is a bottom up consumer movement demanding seafood sustainability. Despite the fact that building such a movement has been the primary goal of much of the NGO community (seafood cards, MSC labels, and corporate responsibility campaigns), Chinese consumers care deeply about quality and food safety, but little about ‘sustainability’.
The one exception may be among high - end consumers more exposed to Western campaigns. For example, the effort to control or ban shark fin in Hong Kong has received widespread support from prominent vendors - like Cathay Pacific Airlines and the Shangri-La hotel chain, as these companies see supporting this type of campaign as enhancing their reputation. In the same fashion Zhangzidao Fisheries sees its MSC certification on scallops as enhancing its brand, not as a response to local consumer demands. So there is a feedback loop established with some companies adopting high profile sustainability measures, and thereby increasing the exposure of richer consumers to such actions, who then may demand further actions.
But overall, China is likely to take a different approach to sustainability than in the West. First, it is likely to be more top down - driven by government regulations and major buyer specifications. Secondly, the impetus is mostly going to be on quality and safety improvements. To the extent that sustainability fits in with this program, it will be enhanced. In aquaculture in particular, it is not possible to separate sustainability issues from food safety and quality, as the major improvement steps - controlling water quality, treating discharges, and monitoring feed and antibiotic use - all serve both ends.
This means that in China, the major impacts are likely to be seen in the slow improvements of large numbers of producers, rather than rapid improvements of a few leading companies. The companies who stand out with more rapid improvements are those who are exporters to the West, but many of these are turning to the Chinese domestic market as it becomes a more attractive alternative, with higher prices and better profitability.
The success of seafood NGO’s in China will clearly depend on how much they and their funders can think in new ways about their overall mission and goals. If they apply current models - the checklist certification and the consumer demand for sustainability, they will not be relevant. And yet, if they do adopt new ways of thinking and respect the Chinese traditions in aquaculture and marketing, the impacts on food safety, food security, and long term sustainability will dwarf their largely successful impact in the West.
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