2021.07.20

"Seafood is not seafood"

2021.07.20

Baltic Breakfast: Seafood consumption from a sustainability perspective

Is it sustainable to increase seafood consumption and how could consumers be encouraged to make sustainable choices? These issues were in focus during the last Baltic Breakfast webinar where researchers Sara Hornborg and Malin Jonell participated.

Text: Lisa Bergqvist

Sara Hornborg, researcher at RISE, Research Institutes of Sweden, started out by concluding that seafood, although a highly diverse group, generally is a low-carbon and nutritious food relative to other animal-based option. Will then increased seafood consumption benefit food sustainability and marine ecosystems? Well, that depends.

 – It depends on what you replace, what impacts you compare and what seafood you choose, says Sara Hornborg and raises another question: where will all the seafood actually come from?

In Sweden the consumers barely reach up to the dietary advice of eating seafood 2-3 times a week, but at the same time there is a lack of domestic supply of seafood and 75 percent of the volume is imported. 20 percent of the consumption comes from domestic fisheries and only 6 percent from aquaculture.

 – Increase in consumption calls for more import, increase in aquaculture and use of more of the less utilized resources. That could be species of less consumer interest today, such as carp fishes, or to eat more parts of the fish – we have a focus on fillets today. 

Large variability between different types of seafood

The carbon footprint of seafood varies a lot between different species. A study of Norwegian seafood shows for example that salmon has a higher footprint than European poultry, while the carbon footprint of herring is as low as that of carrot. But many seafoods also has many nutritional values, for example the small pelagic fish such as sprat and herring.

 – Seafood is not seafood – there is a hugh variability. It can play any role in carbon footprints and nutrition of diets, says Sara Hornborg.

Apart from the carbon footprint, there are other environmental aspects of seafood to consider. Some pressures are shared between other food system, while others are unique for seafood production, such as bycatch and habitat destruction.

 – No food comes without impacts. It's rather to define and characterize what sets sustainable limits, says Sara Hornborg.

Sara Hornborg, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden.

“Being a conscious seafood consumer is not easy”

Researcher Malin Jonell, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Stockholm Resilience Centre, has studied the role of consumers and other market actors in relation to seafood sustainability.  

 – Being a conscious seafood consumer is not easy. We are bombarded by messages around health, sustainability, food safety etcetera, she concludes.

The EAT-Lancet report, launched in 2019 with the objective to assess how if it is possible to feed 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries, stated that seafood will be an important component in feeding a growing world population. The report recommended a consumption of at least 28 grams of seafood per day. In average, the people around in the world eat almost that much, but there are large differences between different countries.

 – In particularly South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa consumption could be substantially increased to boost the nutrition of people. For us Swedes it’s not that important, but it could help us to shift away from the impactful and less healthy red meet, says Malin Jonell.

Malin Jonell, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Certification and nudging can guide consumers

Studies show that in general the consumers do care about sustainability when choosing seafood, but other things are considered even more important, such as taste and food safety.

 – We can probably not rely on the consumers for shifting seafood consumption to sustainability. But I would like to stress the importance of individual consumers to ask difficult questions in the local grocery store or restaurant. What you ask will help the big and important actors to provide the information that we need, says Malin Jonell.

There are different ways to guide the consumers in making sustainable choices, for example through certification. In Sweden around 28 percent of all seafood is eco-certified by ASC or MSC –  a high figure in a global perspective. But how can we make sure that certification is effective?

 – Most key environmental dimensions are covered to some extent, but for example climate standards are generally not covered, says Malin Jonell. 

Nudging is another way to push consumers toward more beneficial behaviours, for example by having footsteps at the floor in the store or by placing some products at eye level. This has high acceptance and is relatively easy to implement, but there are knowledge gaps when it comes for example to effectiveness. Another way is choice restrictions, where retailers simply don’t offer certain products, such as non-organic bananas. 

 – This is likely effective but challenging to implement, because retailers are afraid of consumers going elsewhere. But somebody needs to take the first step, says Malin Jonell who thinks that both nudging and choice restriction should be used more than today.

 – It’s tricky to change consumption patterns, but not impossible. The industry and the private sectors need to step up and explore together with other actors in society.

What would you like policy makers to do? asks moderator Gun Rudquist.

 – In fisheries management it’s really to minimise pressures and optimize the societal value of the output of the system. It’s allocations of quotas and elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, says Sara Hornborg.

 – Think about blue food production as part of food production in total and help steer consumption away from the more impactful red meat to more seafood, but also look at how you can help young people to change their dietary preferences by serving other types of seafood already at daycares and schools, says Malin Jonell.

Questions from the audience

The audience had many questions to the researchers and not all of them could be addressed during the webinar. Here are some of the remaining questions and the answers from the researchers.

I have understood that we have difficulties in Sweden to expand aquaculture due to very strict interpretation of EU jurisdiction. Can you comment this?

Sara Hornborg: It is very important with environmental legislation to protect local ecosystems. If we could find ways to expand aquaculture in Sweden, that is aligned with our ambitions on acceptable pressures, it would allow for a more responsible consumption since at this point, our seafood consumption is in reality an export of impacts. It is particularly alarming when imports comes from countries with really week legislation, were e.g. use of chemicals and antibiotics poses great risks. So I believe it is essential to find ways to sustainably produce seafood from aquaculture in Sweden – especially if we are recommended to increase our consumption! But I have no solutions to that dilemma yet except for that is requires a collaborative effort.

If Norwegian salmon production is generally in line with ASC-standards, then the ASC-standards must be ridiculously low... or not consider ecosystem impacts?

Malin Jonell: At present the ASC standard has mainly three strong advantages over existing regional/national standards and these relate to; escape numbers allowed, antibiotic usage and fish resources in feed. Changing these three main divergences in the national/regional regulations would significantly improve some of the main sustainability issues with uncertified salmon farming. The study referred to also finds that the potential additionality of the ASC standard can differ between regions, with the highest difference in Chile and lowest in Norway. Ecosystem impacts locally are addressed e.g. though rules on allowed escape numbers and impact globally though rules when it comes to feed.

Is there any seafood from the Baltic Sea that is sustainable?

Sara Hornborg: What is "sustainable" is very complex and it rarely is a constant state. There are so many dimensions to this and different aspects mean more to some than to others. Concerning seafood from the Baltic, there are species of fish that are less utilized and could be used more, such as carp fishes (roach, common bream) and invasive species such as round goby. They would most likely tolerate an increase in fishing pressure, but it is still important with implementing suitable management for these fisheries if they were to expand. We don't want to repeat mistakes, and just jump to new species when traditional species such as cod has been depleted. It always boils down to proactive management – herring could be a sustainable seafood option from the Baltic but there are questions related to sustainable fishing pressure of the different stocks that calls for attention.

Could one argue that fixing the Baltic Sea environment we have the potential to drastically increase local seafood which would probably do miracles to consumption?

Sara Hornborg: If you by "fixing the Baltic Sea" mean restoring ecosystems to a prior state it would certainly allow for more local seafood consumption- one of the most important fisheries in the Baltic (Eastern cod) is now fully closed! But restoring ecosystem is not something easy, such as turning on and off some taps. Therefore, it is crucial with an effective, adaptive management than act before it is too late, such as in the case of the cod fishery. Furthermore, if we could get rid of all the unwanted substances that unfortunately now are found in some fish, a huge volume of e.g. herring could much easier be used as direct human consumption. However, it also calls for consumer interest. It should also be a warning signal – if we fail in risk assessment of various substances that occurs in our society, we have to pay for a really long time.

Does seafood really have "lower impacts" than meet from grass-fed animals? Of course from a climate perspective, but with other environmental aspects considered?

Sara Hornborg: Just to clarify, I was referring to greenhouse gas emissions in terms of "lower impacts" while pointing at there are also other environmental pressures, some that are more difficult to address. The answer here would be: it depends. As an example, a farmed mussel would not cause any competition of land or scarce water resources that even grass-fed animals are associated with.

Further reading