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With Global Food Production, We’re Swimming Against The Tide

by Astrid Scholz , Ulf Sonesson , and Peter Tyedmers

November 25, 2009 — The challenges facing the world’s oceans and their ability to provide us with seafood are mounting. Global fisheries have been in decline, in particular, for the past twenty years. Overfishing, loss of critical habitat, a warming planet and ocean acidification are causing many of our favorite types of seafood to vanish.

Three years ago, we teamed up in an effort to understand how to develop sustainable food systems to feed a planet of 9 billion by 2050. We chose salmon as the main focus of our study.  Salmon are available around the world at any time and in any location, regardless of season or local ecosystems, and they exemplify important characteristics of modern food provision. Our study is the world’s first comprehensive global-scale look at a major food commodity, and we examined everything – how salmon are caught in the wild, what they’re fed when farmed, how they’re transported, how they’re consumed, and how all of this contributes to both environmental degradation and socioeconomic benefits.

Unfortunately, we discovered that current popular thinking about how to change world food systems for the better often misses the point. Rather than worrying about food miles, or growing “organic” salmon in land-based farms, the world can achieve greater environmental and community benefit by adopting simple production changes. For example, fish shouldn’t fly. They should swim – container ships are by far the most efficient way to transport food, followed by rail systems.

We found that in both wild and farmed salmon systems – and all food systems – we’re often swimming against the tide. Instead of working with nature, we work against it, chasing fish in the open ocean with big diesel engines when they’ll happily return to us, or growing them on fish farms using resource intensive feeds, such as those derived from poultry.

While it isn’t easy to balance people, profit and planet, we can do much better. We know that food production, in aggregate, is the single largest source of environmental degradation globally. Impacts vary dramatically depending on what, where and how food is produced. For example, previous studies of different strawberry production methods in the U.K. found a six-fold variation in greenhouse emissions. In the world of seafood, some shrimp fisheries accidentally result in nets full of other sorts of fish – not shrimp. For concerned consumers, it’s important to think about how food was produced and transported – not just where it was produced – when making food choices.

In the face of all this, programs such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have emerged. MSC certifies sustainably-caught seafood. These sustainable seafood initiatives have gained ground; even major retailers such as Walmart have signed on. But MSC focuses entirely on what happens in the water, and it doesn’t fully account for human and environmental costs of food production.

If you are concerned with the carbon footprint of your dinner, then the choice to buy frozen matters more than organic vs. conventional or wild vs. farmed. When fish is frozen with new frozen-at-sea technology, it is nearly indistinguishable from fresh. The world clearly has a strong preference for “fresh” everything -- fruits, vegetables, protein – but when thinking about how best to feed a globalized commodity, “frozen” is a powerful tool. Globally, the majority of salmon fillets are currently consumed fresh and never frozen. This requires carbon-intensive air freighting (planes are big polluters). In fish-loving Japan, which gets much of its fish by air, switching to 75 percent frozen salmon would have more benefit than all of Europe eating locally farmed salmon.

What else can we do? Developed countries eat far more protein than poor countries. America consumes approximately three times the protein of most countries. If people ate more appropriate amounts of protein, more people could eat protein. In short, portion size and frequency matter. It’s also important to consider the total impact of food preparation. Driving to the store alone and then cooking alone at home has big environmental impact. Want to benefit the earth more? Go out to dinner more, or just eat more frequently with friends and family at home.

Overall, it’s clear that single metrics such as “food miles” are too simple. Decision-making for food must become more sensitive to the needs of feeding an entire world. We must learn to fully account for the socioeconomic and environmental costs of food production.  How we weight the importance of such impacts is ultimately subjective and in the realm of policy and culture, but using a comprehensive approach such as our “life cycle assessment” approach provides a more nuanced process for informed decision-making. Even food has a lifecycle, and we must comprehend the full impact of it if we’re to create reliable, resilient systems to feed a world population that’s increasing by two billion in less than 40 years.

Dr. Astrid Scholz is the vice president of knowledge systems at Ecotrust in Portland, Ore. Dr. Ulf Sonesson is a researcher at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology.  Dr. Peter Tyedmers is a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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