« November 2008 Table of Contents
Carbon Footprint: Energy efficiency
Carbon emissions factor into sustainable seafood movement
By James Wright
November 01, 2008
The production and distribution of seafood requires energy -
a lot of it. Fuel is needed to power fishing vessels, airplanes
and delivery trucks while hatcheries, fish farms and processing
plants all depend on electricity and other resources to
operate. What's more, there are many essential,
energy-dependent services like cold storage providers along the
supply chain. As the global energy crunch deepens, seafood
companies are assessing their carbon footprint - and how to
reduce it - in order to cut costs, reduce their environmental
impact and lure environmentally conscious customers.
Global food producers are only just beginning to quantify
their operations' toll on the planet. And they're finding that
determining the amount of carbon dioxide, a so-called
greenhouse gas, released into the atmosphere as a result of
their operations is a complicated task, one that has no
clear-cut answer. What is clear is that consumers want to know
much more about their food than simply the size, weight and the
figures on nutrition labels.
One Canadian researcher is getting closer to providing
answers. Peter Tyedmers, assistant professor at Dalhousie
University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, uses a process
called life-cycle assessment (LCA) to study the environmental
impacts of both the wild and farmed salmon industries. His
project began in late 2005 and is funded by the Lenfest Ocean
Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
An LCA, says Tyedmers, is a "biophysical accounting tool,"
or a measure of the impact that industrial activities have on
the environment - like a carbon footprint. An LCA, for
instance, calculates how many metric tons of greenhouse gas a
fishery or a fish farm emits to produce one metric ton of
The carbon footprint of your food, Tyedmers says, goes way
beyond counting food miles.
"The food-miles [movement] is attractive to people - if all
things are equal, moving seafood a great distance will result
in greater greenhouse gas emissions. All things aren't equal,"
says Tyedmers, a principal with Ecotrust Knowledge Systems in
Portland, Ore. "A bigger [environmental] impact than distance
is transport mode. Air freight is two orders of magnitude
greater in terms of emissions than [ocean] container cargo. We
pay a price to get fish there fast, and that price is in carbon
emissions. Food miles is not the whole story."
Employing an LCA formula on a particular fishery or
aquaculture industry is akin to "throwing a very big net around
a production system," says Tyedmers, because carbon equivalents
are released into the atmosphere at every step: by the
production of fish feed, by fishing boats and by an entire
range of distribution vehicles throughout any given supply
chain. Researchers even look at socioeconomic dimensions.
Tyedmers says no environmental impact associated with
seafood is more damaging than satisfying consumer demand for
fresh fish. The issue is highlighted each summer at the onset
of Alaska's wild salmon fishery, when Seattle retailers use
overnight air to deliver Copper River king salmon to market and
then continue to fly fresh fish daily to the Lower 48.
"As a society, we're hung up on fresh. You just might get
better quality with frozen-at-sea products. And there are
environmental benefits as well," says Tyedmers, adding that air
cargo is wild salmon's top source of carbon inputs.
One company has taken LCA lessons to heart by pledging to
ban air freight of seafood to any of its restaurants by April
2009. Bon Appétit Management Co. in Palo Alto, Calif., launched
its Low Carbon Diet in 2007 at all of its 400 cafés located in
corporate offices, universities and other specialty venues
nationwide. All cafés purchase locally grown produce and commit
about one-third of their food costs to products sourced from
within a 150-mile radius.
Helene York, director of the Bon Appétit Management Co.
Foundation, says the program was not intended to save money.
Rather, the Low Carbon Diet, she says, represents the next
stage in sustainability and corporate responsibility.
"There are so many emissions associated with the production
and waste of food," says York. "It's a concerted effort to
minimize waste and what we do with it. It's a chef- and
consumer-education program. It's the right thing to do that's
not especially costing us money."
York explains that the Low Carbon Diet plays into Bon
Appétit's Healthy Cooking Initiative, which calls for a higher
percentage of vegetable-based foods and non-protein sources.
Seafood species that fall lower on the food chain are more
aligned with the company's values: flavor, health and
"We serve a whole range of foods, but as a percentage of
what we serve, we are moving to more lower-trophic foods (like
shellfish and Pacific sardines)," adds York. "And we're making
The Low Carbon Diet also calls for frozen-at-sea products.
But seafood buyers who source fresh products under strict green
parameters will be faced with many challenges, York admits, as
will their suppliers. But she hopes that setting high standards
now will cause a ripple effect throughout the supply chain.
"We need as an industry more transparency in the process,"
York says. "We need to shorten the food chain and create
efficiencies. Nowhere is this more needed
"We're very strict," York says about Bon Appétit's policies.
"I haven't been called the carbon cop for nothing."
Assistant Editor James Wright can be