Making blue foods greener
While the COVID-19 pandemic has monopolised seafood industry action plans in recent times, the climate emergency remains a colossal concern, writes Jason Holland
The global seafood economy’s reliance on ocean health means that climate change is by far its most pressing environmental challenge, and without the luxury of a silver bullet solution, the onus is on all stakeholders to look at their own carbon intensities and to come up with radical actions that rapidly build on the modest progress already seen, heard a Sustainability Seminar at the recent North Atlantic Seafood Forum (NASF 2021)
Lesley Mitchell, Associate Director – Sustainable Nutrition with Forum for the Future, told the conference that a lot has changed as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but one constant has prevailed throughout – the climate emergency.
The non-profit organisation advocates for a quick transition to a carbon-positive economy that limits global warming to 1.5°C, but Mitchell warned that even through the COVID crisis and the widespread lockdown measures, the opportunity to stay below that level has continued to quickly disappear.
Consequently, climate change requires even faster, more intensive responses, she said.
“What we are seeing from more recent research is that some predictions could have been quite conservative and the situation is accelerating, with us potentially reaching 1.5°C by the mid-2030s.
“We should bear in mind that 1.5°C is in itself a challenge for disruption and presents an unacceptable risk of substantiative change, particularly for marine environments.
“With rising temperatures, we see increasing risks of tipping points, and frankly, this is where it gets really scary with the potential for runaway climate change.”
Moving forward, Mitchell acknowledged that a number of food businesses are now establishing more regenerative, environmentally-friendly action plans and making commitments to achieving net zero.
“There’s huge potential for seafood to be part of the solution, but within that there’s a key focus on embedding sustainability throughout business strategies, and increasing the level of urgency and boldness of ambition in achieving that.”
She advised that future seafood business and value creation models need to look at economic and social viability and practices that regenerate the environment, adding that as unpredictable as things are, “it’s a great opportunity to build something new” and to “create a sustainable future for food”.
NASF 2021 also heard that Iceland is on such a pathway, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development Cooperation, Guðlaugur Thór Thórdarson, confirming that alongside participating in regional and international efforts to combat climate change, the country and its fisheries sector are “deeply committed” to the 2015 Paris Agreement, the long-term, legally binding international treaty that amongst other things seeks to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Iceland has introduced a new target of 55% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2040 and plans to reach these goals through several different actions, Thórdarson explained.
At the same time, he expects green hydrogen and eco-fuels to become increasingly relevant in heavy transport, shipping and aviation, and that that carbon capture and storage from industrial activities and other sources will become much more commonplace.
“I believe that there are great opportunities for businesses to cooperate on another level and innovate in ways that develop and upscale technologies that we need to build back better and greener.”
According to Thórdarson, Iceland is among just a few countries in the world where fisheries have in modern times become a primary driver for its economic growth and prosperity.
“Bitter experiences from past decades have taught us that there’s a strong need for proper conservation measures,” he said, adding that the Icelandic science-based fisheries management system has been able to overcome some of the inefficiencies that are still seen in many of the world’s other fisheries.
The efficiency of the system has been shown to be beneficial for the climate and the environment, and also for businesses, he said, highlighting that the Icelandic fishing fleet’s oil consumption has decreased by some 35% since 1990.
“This management that has resulted in stronger fish stocks and thereby less fishing effort for each tonne caught, as well as improved fishing vessel design. These are the reasons that most of the important fish stocks in Icelandic waters are being harvested within sustainable limits.”
At the same time, the fishing industry has become much more profitable by investing in research and innovation, including the creation of green and hi-tech solutions.
“For example, it’s now estimated we are utilising up to 80% of every cod landed. Icelandic companies are now producing innovative and valuable new products from parts of the fish that would otherwise have been thrown away,” he said.
Solving the hunger crisis
On a global scale, Thórdarson maintained that “blue foods”, i.e. those products sourced from oceans and freshwater systems, already play “a central role” in ending malnutrition and building a healthy, sustainable and resilient food system.
“Many blue foods have been produced in ways that are more environmentally sustainable than terrestrial foods. Blue foods provide food and nutritional security for billions of people and are a vital provider of livelihoods, economies and cultures for many coastal states.”
In this regard, he said it’s “a positive development” that today a higher proportion of fish production goes for human consumption, and that the higher demand resulting from rising incomes and increased urbanisation is being met by increased fish production and improvements in post-harvest methods and distribution channels.
But he stressed it’s imperative that the industry realises that only by drastically reducing its greenhouse gas emissions will it be able to reverse the negative impacts of climate change on seafood production.
“The global community has committed to ending world hunger. Our ability to achieve this goal depends largely on how successful we are in utilising natural resources in a sustainable way. Improved and innovative processing of raw materials will yield more food and higher value products, but if we want the oceans to be an essential part of this solution then the science-based, sensible harvesting of marine resources must become a universal practice.”
As an increasingly important contributor to food and nutritional security, the seafood industry needs to be alert to the emotional connection that consumers have to the climate change challenge, delegates were told.
Caroline Holme, Senior Director of Globe Scan, advised that climate change is influencing the behaviour and attitudes of conscious consumers, with one of the research company’s recent annual studies finding that 31% of people worldwide feeling that they had been personally affected by climate change. By comparison, some 49% said they were greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and 40% stated that they were impacted by the economic recession.
While some 68% of people also said that they were worried by COVID and viewed it as a very serious global problem, Holme highlighted that environmental problems such as climate change, depletion of natural resources, plastic waste and biodiversity also ranked highly as a concern, with between 50 and 60% of people worldwide perceiving them as very serious issues.
“In 2020, there was a huge uptick in public concern about human disease, while concerns about climate change remained stable. Climate change has been consistently on peoples’ radars for the last couple of years,” she said.
“There’s a thirst for information. We have found a steep upward trend in recent years with people wanting to learn more about companies’ social and environmental impact.”
Globe Scan has also learned that more people want to learn about the sustainability of fish and seafood, with almost nine in 10 people wanting better information.
“They want to feel confident that they are not buying unsustainable fish, while 70% want to hear more about what companies are doing about the sustainability of their fish and seafood, and 65% wanted to know that their fish could be traced back to a known and trusted source.
“Overall, people want to know more about provenance and sustainability to make sure that they are not buying unsustainable products. At the same time, people are more empowered and believing more in their own personal impact, with 78% of people in 17 countries believing that they can, as consumers, make a difference in how responsibly companies behave,” Holme said.
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