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Carbon Footprint: Energy efficiency

Carbon emissions factor into sustainable seafood movement

Some companies are reducing airfreight, which has a
    large carbon footprint.
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 edible product.

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 environmental responsibility.

"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 them delicious."

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 
than seafood.

"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 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com


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