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When “Environmentalists” Take Anti-Science Positions….

August 20, 2013

I have been following with great interest this discussion in the “Aquaculture & Seafood Networkers” group on LinkedIn. If  you are an aquaculture professional and you don’t belong to this group, you should (and if you don’t belong to LinkedIn because “I don’t have time for social media” — shame on you!)

The discussion, at the start, is about a Vancouver Sun article on closed-containment aquaculture. However, when a group member who is currently making a documentary about net-pen salmon farming enters to pronounce that “closed containment systems should be the only way farmed fisheries operate” and open-net farms “are devastating to our oceans and our wild salmon,” a conversation is sparked that should be taking place much more publicly than on a specialist LinkedIn group.

As he can always be counted on to do, Dave Conley, senior consultant and founding partner of Aquaculture Communications Group,  springs forth to challenge the scientific basis of net-pen opponents’ objections. At this writing, the Alaskan filmmaker has yet to produce a single piece of peer-reviewed research supporting her arguments about “the harmful impacts of farmed salmon to our health and to our environment.”

In response to several links supporting her position, Ivar Warrer-Hansen, Head of Business Developments at Inter Aqua Advance — who makes his living selling the very type of closed-containment systems the filmmaker advocates — asks her to “just give me one peer reviewed article please, just one.” So far, she has been unable to do so. I will keep watching and report here if she does.

Within this discussion is a brief but interesting exchange about feed-conversion ratios that is a must-read for anyone who has ever tried to defend aquaculture against the “10 pounds of fishmeal for every 1 pound of salmon” meme. Again, thank you Dave Conley for providing the links to the relevant research.

I’ll give the last word to Ivar: “The sad thing is that when [environmentalists] take anti-science positions, they weaken the environmental movement – they give environmentalists a bad name. We all want to look after our environment.”


Aquaculture 2013: “Strike a Chord for Sustainable Aquaculture”

February 22, 2013

Amid the small talk at last night’s cocktail reception, I was asked, “How is it that you came to aquaculture through your interest in marine conservation when so many environmentalists are hostile to aquaculture?”

The full answer would require more than a single blog post, but the short version is, “I came to it naive, without knowing what, as an environmentalist, I was ‘supposed to know’.” As I’ve written elsewhere, when I started down this path several years ago I thought a fistfight might break out during the Q&A following an advance screening of the film “The End of the Line” when an audience member suggested that the film gave short shrift to aquaculture as part of the solution to the problem of global overfishing.

A couple of years later, I was pleasantly surprised during a screening of “Sushi: The Global Catch” to see aquaculture prominently featured as a beneficial component of any strategy to reduce the impact of sushi’s global popularity on bluefin tuna stocks.

Aquaculture 2013’s theme is “Strike a Chord for Sustainable Aquaculture.” Today’s keynote address by climate change expert Dr. Edward Allison of the University of East Anglia and the WorldFish Center (titled: “Aquaculture in a Changing Climate”) presented a much more nuanced picture both of the climate change debate and of the environmental friendliness of aquaculture than we are used to seeing from professional environmentalists. While he didn’t equivocate over whether climate change and sea level rise are real and have their roots in human behavior, he acknowledged repeatedly that the issues are complex, impacts are hard to predict, and “there will be winners and losers.”

“Aquaculture is a small contributor to global warming,” Dr. Allison said, adding that the biggest contributing factor is feed (the capture and processing of fish for fishmeal). So, the biggest factor in a small contribution to global warming is feed production – an impact that is completely addressable through existing and yet-to-be-developed means. When compared with other, more energy-intensive forms of livestock with much higher feed-conversion ratios, aquaculture starts to look awfully good.

Day 1 of World Aquaculture Society’s Annual Meeting in Nashville

February 22, 2013
World Aquaculture Society conference,  Day 1.

World Aquaculture Society Conference, Day 1.

Looking forward to lots of learning and productive networking. Will be tweeting (@Aquaculturebiz) during and in between sessions. If you’re here, let’s talk! If you’re not, follow me and I’ll do my best to keep you abreast of the action.

Falcon System Closes Gap Between “Waste Problem” & “Feed Solution”

February 22, 2013

Waste is worse than loss. The time is coming when every person who lays claim to ability will keep the question of waste before him constantly. The scope of thrift is limitless.”

– Thomas Edison

I’ve been thinking a lot about waste lately. As the world wonders how it will feed a human population fast approaching 9 billion, the waste hard-wired into the global food-production and distribution system has been well documented. From imperfect produce left to rot in the field, to supermarket policies that mandate extreme overstocking, to statutes that prohibit restaurants from donating unused inventory to food banks, unconscionable waste appears to be a feature of the global food system, not a bug.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste – one natural system’s byproduct is another system’s feedstock. Waste exists in man-made systems because, for too long, we have been able to hide or pass along to those yet unborn the cost of managing the inconvenient outputs of our production processes.

On my way to the World Aquaculture Society conference in Nashville this week, I had the opportunity to check out Falcon Protein Products’ Agricultural By-Product Value Recovery System at a catfish farm in Greensboro, Ala. The ABVRS system processes animal offal and other agricultural byproducts into value-added meals, oils, and other commercial products in a manner that is environmentally safe and virtually odor free.

The most striking thing to me about the ABVRS system (check out the video below) is that, for all it does, it is incredibly straightforward in design and operation. It closes the gap between “waste problem” and “feed solution” with the sort of elegant simplicity that makes you ask, “Why did no one think of this sooner?”

What other examples of ruthlessly simple problem solving are out there, hiding in plain sight? The aquaculture industry needs to know. 

Aquaculture & GMOs: Sorting Out the Issues

September 2, 2012

Of all the topics being discussed and debated on the Aquaculture Means Business LinkedIn group, few, if any, have been more contentious than those surrounding the role of genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) organisms in agriculture generally and aquaculture in particular. As I sift through the arguments in the LinkedIn group and the materials referenced by their proponents, I’ve tried to sort out the most relevant questions with regard to aquaculture as business. The questions, as I see them, are:

  • Are GM/GE organisms inherently dangerous?
  • Where do the dangers reside?
  • Can those dangers be eliminated or sufficiently mitigated?
  • Are the benefits offered by GM/GE organisms worth the costs of risk mitigation, or are the problems they seek to address better resolved by less-controversial means?

1. Are GM/GE organisms inherently dangerous? Most meaningful technological advances involve some risk of unintended consequences. Even something as clearly beneficial as a blight-resistant tomato entails the risk of crowding out unenhanced native species, reducing bio-diversity, etc. One doesn’t have to invoke GMOs to think about such risks — one only needs to look as far as the corn economy, at how commercial emphasis on producing a handful of preferred strains on an industrial scale has resulted in massive amount of global economic resources being to sustaining a corn monoculture. The introduction of genetic modification can and has exacerbated this trend, but it is not the root cause. The root cause resides in the economic and political structures and dynamics that govern agriculture policy and decision making. Much the same could be said for the beef economy, with its highly inefficient feed-conversion ratios (feed based on corn, which cattle did not evolve to digest — again, one doesn’t have to invoke GMOs to recognize the highly “unnatural nature” of the existing food-production industry).

2. Where do the dangers reside? With regard to aquaculture, the most-frequently invoked danger is that of escapes of GMO fish into the wild, where they might outcompete and devastate wild varieties. Again, this is not a risk that is restricted to genetically engineered varieties — the economic and environmental damage caused by invasive species globally is well documented. One needs to look only as far as the impact of lionfish in Florida, Asia carp in the American Midwest, and zebra mussels in the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Some concern has been expressed about potential human health impacts of consuming GMO fish, but, as Dave Conley points out (quoting a representative of the Royal Society of London):

“We have looked at all of the available research, and found nothing to suggest that the process of genetic modification makes potential foodstuffs inherently unsafe. ”

Again, I juxtapose this with the very real and well-documented human health impacts of our corn economy in terms of the obesity epidemic caused, in large part, by the inclusion of high-fructose corn syrup in virtually every processed food product consumed in the developed world.

3. Can those dangers be eliminated or sufficiently mitigated?  In the case of aquaculture, the danger of escapes certainly can be mitigated by genetic and mechanical means. Creating sterile GMO fish and raising them far from oceans and rivers where they might affect wild species are two of the most obvious mechanisms and seem fairly fail-safe. The question that plagues people who are concerned about commercialization of GMO agricultural products (and, full disclosure: I count myself among them) is whether such fail-safe mechanisms will survive collision with economic and political incentives and constraints. In other words, if we become too comfortable too quickly with these techniques, how long will it be before safeguards are eroded in order to facilitate commercial interests? My concerns are not exclusively (or even primarily) about risks inherent in the techniques of genetic engineering — they have more to do with the economic and political incentives running in the background.

4. Are the benefits offered by GM/GE organisms worth the costs of risk mitigation, or are the problems they seek to address better resolved by less-controversial means? For me, this is the nub of the issue, especially where North American aquaculture is concerned, and I don’t have the answer. I agree fully with people like Dave Conley who argue that knee-jerk opposition to genetic engineering has a great deal in common with knee-jerk opposition to aquaculture. In both cases, the opposition often is not well thought out and is rooted more in simplistic media-generated narratives than in understanding of the science and technology.  What concerns me — along with a general wariness of the intersection between business and politics — is that hitching North American aquaculture’s wagon to the horse of genetic modification may just turn into another distraction from and obstacle to bringing the aquaculture industry on this continent to commercial viability.

When I look at aquaculture, I see a fairly uncontroversial set of opportunities to solve fairly obvious problems: the global human population is growing rapidly and requires access to healthy, efficiently sourced protein. Our current agricultural system, based on producing corn to feed to large mammals to feed to humans, is hugely inefficient in terms of land and water use and feed conversion. Aquaculture, as currently practiced in most of the world, involves a handful of solvable environmental concerns that can best be addressed in the developed world but, for economic and policy reasons, tends to be outsourced to less-developed, less-regulated areas.

I’m just not sure, at this moment in the industry’s history, it makes sense to focus overmuch on genetic engineering, whose main benefit — it seems to me — is to introduce incremental efficiency benefits to an industry that already offers huge efficiency advantages over existing food-production alternatives. Am I missing something here? If the primary benefit of genetic engineering is to grow fish bigger, faster, on less feed and thereby produce protein at a lower cost (lower cost being the bottom line, the linchpin to commercial viability) — mightn’t there be ways to achieve that end without introducing another component for environmental NGOs and regulators to object (rightly or wrongly) to?

Gary Myers argues forcefully that a combination of vertical integration and appropriate siting of aquaculture facilities can generate sufficient systemic efficiency to render the use of GMO techniques superfluous. When I think about the risk-mitigation costs inherent in alleviating concerns around GMOs, versus the value- and efficiency-creating costs implied by Gary’s recommended approach, Gary’s argument comes across to me as more compelling. Perhaps as inland, enclosed systems gain traction and become competitive with other forms of food production, the introduction of GMO techniques may make sense to wring even greater efficiency out of already highly efficient system, thus making North American aquaculture that much more competitive.

Let’s not throw the GMO baby out with the bathwater; but let’s be smart in all aspects of developing this industry.

Traceability: Perhaps the Best Reason to Encourage North American Aquaculture

August 13, 2012

When I hear my friends in the marine conservation world justify their opposition to aquaculture in terms of risk to health and the environment, it is all I can do to keep from shouting: “The things you fear are already happening — most of the world’s aquaculture has been driven by economic and policy considerations to parts of the world with the least transparency!” Concerns about health and the environment may be the best reason to SUPPORT a robust, sustainable U.S. and Canadian aquaculture industry.

The U.S. imports 85% of its seafood, most of it farmed in less-regulated areas of Asia and Latin America, and very little of which is inspected before entering U.S. markets.  Despite growing concerns about food traceability and safety, recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70% of the time for commonly-swapped species like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.  In a report published last yearOceana  found high levels of mislabeling across the country.

The sad truth is, we will never know what we are eating when it comes to seafood until economic pressure is placed on seafood producers to provide maximum transparency. What better place to begin producing highly traceable seafood than in the countries that consume most of the stuff?


Sushi: The Global Catch

August 2, 2012

I received my introduction to the knee-jerk hostility that many in the marine conservation world display toward aquaculture about three years ago, in the Q&A session following a private screening of the film version of The End of the Line, Charles Clover’s book on overfishing. A young lady near the back of the auditorium asked why the film gave little to no attention to aquaculture as part of the solution to the problem of global overfishing and, from the response of the producers and many in the audience, I fully expected a fistfight to break out over the issue.

The world’s love affair with sushi has driven the bluefin tuna to the brink of extinction.

So, imagine my pleasant shock this week, when attending a similar sneak preview of Sushi: The Global Catch — indie filmmaker Mark Hall’s documentary on the history of sushi and its impact on marine health — to find a film that not only acknowledges but embraces aquaculture!

The film very effectively tells the story of how sushi went from being an esoteric delicacy to a global food staple over a few decades.  It does a great job of describing the rise of the industry without demonizing the product’s producers or consumers and is full of interesting observations, such as the role of Japan Airlines in driving the growth of sushi in the 1970s as a means of putting something — anything — in its cargo planes when they were returning from delivering Japanese-made goods to North America and Europe. This economic need on the part of the airline, combined with the rise of improved refrigeration methods, played a key role in the global trade in bluefin tuna and other species.

Sushi: The Global Catch describes the problem of tuna overfishing and provides a balanced account of the tension between market dynamics and ocean health in the context of a growing and increasingly affluent global population. It spends a great deal of time (almost too much, I would argue) exploring the dubious promise of bluefin farming. I would like to have seen more attention paid to other species, such as cobia and barramundi, that are being responsibly farmed in open-ocean and in enclosed recirculating aquaculture systems and to the positive, restorative impacts that can be derived from shellfish farming.  Noticeably lacking was any discussion of shrimp, one of the top three (along with tuna and salmon) popular seafood options and, when fished or farmed irresponsibly, one of the most destructive of marine environments.

But these are nitpicks. The fact that this film could be financed and produced at all is a sign to me that the cause of seafood sustainability is, albeit slowly, gaining traction in popular culture and that “aquaculture” need not be a dirty word in the discussion. I strongly recommend seeing Sushi: The Global Catch, which opens in theaters tomorrow (Aug. 3) in four cities (in New York City, the Quad Cinema) and, if you’re not near one of those locations, hosting a screening.

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