For the past decade, efforts to make seafood more sustainable have focused primarily on engaging large-scale buyers and getting them to shift their policies toward promoting sustainable seafood procurement. This was initially a good strategy when sustainability issues were not in the public eye, but after a decade of effort, the amount of seafood that is certified sustainable sits at only 15% of seafood globally. A major contributing factor to the low percentage is due to the fact that small-scale producers can be a major part of global seafood supply chains and for whom certifications don’t really work because they are too costly for the day to day realities of their operations. If we are to drive this number up, we must find ways to be more inclusive of small-scale producers and build solutions that work for them, including finding ways to support their improvement along the way.
Small-scale production does not meet large-scale buyer needs in a few important ways. First, small-scale producers simply don’t produce high enough volumes and this coupled with their high numbers creates greater challenges from a risk and traceability point of view. For certifications, the same problem is true when it comes to verifying compliance of small-scale supply chains against their certification standards. Finally, many small-scale producers have powerful stories associated with their products and in some cases can already be producing a very sustainable product.
All of this brings us to an interesting nexus point when we start to think about sustainability. What is the required value proposition we need when trying to engage small-scale farmers in sustainability?
For small-scale producers, it needs to be a combination of greater value generation through stories and visuals, and partnerships with buyers who are willing to accept working with smaller volumes. In other words, working with small-scale producers and accepting the seasonality effect where a chef or restaurant will feature menu items so long as they’re available, but also celebrating when they’re not.
Due to high levels of consumer trust, chefs already have a successful track record of promoting small-scale products that are predominantly North American. They care a great deal about brand alignment and value connection with local fishers/farmers and their stories. But what if this was possible on a global scale and what if chefs are the missing link in helping drive more inclusivity for small-scale producers around this planet? Should they care about promoting sustainability with small seafood producers overseas in addition to the United States?
Creating a Global Mindset
Maintaining a myopic view of sustainability in this complex world of seafood doesn’t serve us well, and chefs who adopt a global mindset have real opportunities to not only demonstrate culinary leadership by expanding their portfolio of flavors, but also demonstrate leadership on sustainability.
The most common critique that critics have about sourcing from overseas is food miles or the carbon footprint of seafood. There is no question that some seafood items such as some tuna and salmon products are flown, and the carbon footprint of those items is concerning. However, there are many types of seafood that are not flown including farmed shrimp. Furthermore, with the advancement of new freezing technologies that are arguably preserving the quality better than fresh, the requirement to fly seafood could be a thing of the past in the not too distant future. It is also important to note that when seafood is frozen and shipped by sea freight, the carbon footprint is very low. For example, if we consider farmed shrimp frozen and container-shipped from Vietnam, the carbon footprint (144 CO2 / tonne) is equivalent to trucking seafood from San Francisco to Orange County. This tells us that the mode of transport matters more than miles the product travels, and that seeking international opportunities is important if we want to create more equity and resiliency in our communities.
Chef Danielle Leoni of the Breadfruit and Rum Bar in Arizona is a great example of a chef adopting a global mindset and promoting small-scale production in Vietnam. Leoni has been sourcing black tiger shrimp grown by small-scale family farms in Vietnam.
“I choose to feature Selva shrimp on my menu because they’re delicious and in line with my personal values. Having true culinary prowess means cooking food that goes beyond tasty and beautiful-it’s responsible. Selva checks all of the boxes-they’re raised in synergy with the mangroves, provide a fair income for farmers, have a low carbon footprint and have a flavor that wins in all of my recipes.”
In short, the need for chef voices to promote sustainable seafood both locally and abroad is clear and there is no credible reason why chefs cannot have a global representation on their menu.
Creating Shared Value
Although virtually all of the small-scale seafood producers around the world have no idea where their product goes, many of them are interested in knowing more and care about having their story told. What holds true for many small-scale producers is that their work is often borne out of the need to simply survive, and those producers who rise up from the ranks and become successful in their communities consider themselves very fortunate.
Organizations such as the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative (ASIC), are committed to engaging small-scale producers in an effort to radically shift and redefine the Asian seafood industry, and the importance of these small-scale producers in a global context cannot be understated both in terms of their existence and how they operate. Helping them produce sustainably could have a significant impact as many of them operate in and around tropical ecosystems that are very important to global biodiversity.
ASIC is also working to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality throughout shrimp supply chains, from the women working on their family farms to women doing the vital work of processing shrimp for export. Women are often underrepresented in stories about shrimp supply chains despite the fact that they make up approximately 50% of the labour force. Sustainability-minded chefs can choose to showcase the contributions of women and support women’s economic empowerment by sourcing products working to improve conditions and opportunities for women on the ground.
Without creating proper incentives for small-scale producers, it is unlikely that they will figure out sustainable practices on their own. Not because they are incapable, but because they simply don’t have the time nor the access to resources and training to help them align their production with these important requirements. Small-scale producers need to have their stories celebrated and relationships need to be fostered across the global supply chain in order to create a shared value approach to sustainability. There has never been a better time nor greater need to do this than today.