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Study: Shallow Claims for Farmed Seafood

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Consumers have always liked farm-raised seafood for its price, but lately they’ve been asking questions about its environmental impact. Eco standards have emerged as a way of reassuring them, and retailers, many of whom are reworking their seafood departments, are happy to incorporate these choices.

The question is: Are both parties getting what they bargained for?

A new study concludes that they’re not. Researchers at theUniversity of Victoria’s Seafood Ecology Research Group analyzed 20 eco standards for farmed seafood and found that most don’t have an environmental impact that’s significantly better than conventional choices. In that under-performing majority, surprisingly, were standards from Whole Foods and England’s Marks & Spencer — two companies that have invested significantly in developing and marketing their seafood programs.

Each of the farmed standards was analyzed against the Global Aquaculture Performance Index, a tool that measures environmental impact across numerous categories such as feed, energy output and antibiotic use. The results showed overall performance as well as how far above or below a baseline score the standards fell. Eco standards, so the thinking goes, should score well above the average considering their sustainable promise and premium price. Yet out of the 20 standards measured, only three scored more than 10% above the baseline. Eleven, including Whole Foods’, were within 7%, while six pulled even or fell below the baseline score.

The results seem to indicate that marginal eco improvements aren’t delivering on the promises these standards make. However, the study also shows that there are practical limits to making farmed seafood more sustainable. The study’s top performers were organic standards from England, New Zealand and other countries, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own standard, which was proposed back in 2008 and is still awaiting approval. Researchers agreed that organic certification is the ecological ideal for farmed fish right now, mostly because it’s been developed across multiple food platforms and hasn’t made concessions for the unique needs of aquaculture. But it may not be economically feasible.

“It’s debatable whether [the organic] standard can be adopted by the industry,” John Volpe, the study’s lead author, told NPR’s health and wellness blog The Salt. “Sustainable practices translate to higher production costs, which will be passed along to consumers.”

Experts predict that, globally, aquaculture production needs to double over the next ten years in order to meet demand. Right now, half of the seafood consumers eat is grown on farms. So there’s clearly a need for greater sustainability in the farmed seafood sector. The question is whether that can be achieved while still remaining a viable choice for consumers.

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