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Making waves

The seafood supply chain leaves a large carbon footprint

By James Wright
August 01, 2007

Seafood's sustainability can be measured in ways beyond how many fish remain in the sea. Tomorrow's seafood companies will need to know their carbon footprint - and how to reduce it - in order to lure customers with green agendas.

The production of seafood, like many industries, plays a role in global climate change, which experts say is hastened by the incessant burning of fossil fuels like petroleum. While energy is essential for harvesting and transporting fish, trains, planes, boats and processing plants emit many tons of carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Only now are the world's food producers beginning to quantify the carbon footprint of their operations and its toll on the planet.

Why? Because consumers understand that there's more to food than simply size, weight and the numbers on nutrition labels. Consumers who believe their purchasing decisions can make a difference want to know not only the origin of their food and how it was harvested, but also what resources were used to produce and distribute it. Should restaurants or retailers be asked about the environmental toll of their product line, they'll have to lean on their suppliers for the answers.

When seafood companies eventually consider their carbon footprint, the answer will reach beyond the health of their targeted fisheries or the distance their product travels to market.

"People are concerned about the environment, which is a good thing," says Ray Riutta, president of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

"[Alaskans] were concerned about sustainable seafood when nobody cared about it - it's nothing new to us. Sustainable seafood is built into our [state's] constitution."

Indeed, Alaska is renowned for well-managed, sustainable fisheries. But against a food-miles yardstick, by which locally produced foods are deemed superior, Alaska seafood might be viewed as a poor choice due to its remote location [see Case Study, page 34]. And consider the overall supply: Approximately 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported from all around the globe.

"For seafood, you still have to get the product where the product resides," Riutta adds. "There are certain realities you can't change. Reality will temper the desire to do everything with the least possible footprint. There is pressure to think and act more responsibly, but excluding products due to food miles would be a disservice."

Fortunately, scientists agree that an odometer is not the truest measure of how food distribution contributes to environmental harm.

"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 Peter Tyedmers, assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who is leading a life-cycle assessment study of both the wild and farmed salmon industries that is funded by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"A bigger [environmental] impact than distance is transport mode. Airfreight is two orders of magnitude greater in terms of emissions than [ocean] container cargo," adds Tyedmers. "We pay a price to get fish there fast, 
and that price is in carbon 
emissions. Food-miles is not the whole story."

'Hung up on fresh'

Tyedmers, a principal with Ecotrust Knowledge Systems in Portland, Ore., calls the life-cycle assessment (LCA) 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.

Tyedmers' LCA studies often have shocking results: Canadian groundfish fisheries were far more fuel-efficient in the 1930s as opposed to the 1990s, he says, because more fish were caught per gallon of fuel consumed.

"They're catching less now despite better engines and boat designs. Despite those technological innovations, the fisheries are more energy intensive now than 50 years ago," he says. "The only difference is stock decline."

Employing the LCA formula 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. The researchers even look at socioeconomic dimensions, he adds.

In late 2005, Tyedmers and a research team began assessing the environmental impacts of both Alaska's salmon fisheries and British Columbia's Atlantic and king salmon farms, a task that is in the final reporting stages. (The next phase of the project will examine 
salmon-farming operations in Norway, Scotland and Chile.)

Tyedmers concludes that the farmed salmon industry's greatest carbon input is from fish feed - he says 90 percent of farmed-salmon's carbon inputs result from the provision 
of feed.

"If salmon farmers wanted to, as a sense of corporate responsibility, they could work on changing things on their farm. But they will have the greatest impact if they reduce their feed inputs," says Tyedmers. The capture of wild fish for feed, raising and harvesting crops like corn and soybeans, processing the crops into feed and then transporting goods around the world all have heavy impacts on fishmeal's carbon footprint.

But perhaps no environmental impact is greater than satisfying consumer demand for fresh seafood. For Alaska salmon to reach the Lower 48, airfreight is a must.

"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 a top source of carbon inputs.

Despite heavy fuel use by fishing fleets, EcoFish in Dover, N.H., markets wild seafood harvested by small boats as more environmentally friendly.

"There's no production cost - Mother Nature is making that fish," says Henry Lovejoy, EcoFish president and co-founder with his wife, Lisa. Most of the company's retail seafood products are either frozen or canned. Six-ounce cans of Henry and Lisa's brand solid white albacore tuna, line-caught by small boats, retails for $5.99.

Lovejoy says his foodservice customers, including L'Etoile in Madison, Wis., Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago and Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., are in tune with environmental issues. EcoFish ensures its seafood is processed at the point of landing - the albacore tuna is processed at a micro-cannery - to cut down on food miles. Lovejoy acknowledges, but does not ascribe to, the powerful lure of overseas secondary processing capabilities, which entice suppliers to ship product to China and other nations for processing before being shipped back to the United States for distribution.

"That's absolutely insane," Lovejoy says. "In this day and age, though, what makes economic sense doesn't always make environmental sense."

Roadblock to sustainability

Reduced profit is the typical barrier for companies to make sourcing decisions that benefit the environment. One company that is taking a proactive environmental stance with regard to seafood is Bon Appetit Management Co. in Palo Alto, Calif. Consumer food choices have an enormous effect on global climate change, says Helene York, director of the Bon Appetit Management Co. Foundation.

"Heavy dependence on fossil fuels is really a roadblock to sustainability for the entire food system," says York. "Food is responsible for a high percentage of greenhouse gases in the world. Methane from livestock is 23 times more [harmful] than carbon dioxide. By demanding products that cause methane or [carbon dioxide], it's an indirect effect."

To lessen the company's dependence on fossil fuels, Bon Appetit has committed to a new purchasing philosophy called the Low Carbon Diet, which York says represents the next stage 
in sustainability and corporate responsibility.

The company announced in April that in one year its 400-plus cafes located in corporations and universities nationwide would purchase locally procured proteins and produce, with 30 percent of all food costs to come from within a 150-mile radius.

"The amount of [carbon dioxide] emissions in flying a product is unacceptable," York says. "Air travel is the least environmentally efficient way to transport food."

Environmental stewardship has long been a platform for Bon Appetit, a division of Compass Food Group, one of the largest U.S. foodservice companies. Bon Appetit sources seafood according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which promotes responsibly harvested species and discourages consumption of species that it deems overfished or may cause health concerns. York says the Low Carbon Diet does not abandon Seafood Watch, but will emphasize species that are lower on the food chain, such as sardines, clams, mussels and squid.

But a top priority for its seafood purchases, she says, is product form.

"Our new kitchen principle calls for frozen-at-sea and regionally procured seafood as a first choice," says York. "If frozen-at-sea is a good enough quality standard for the best Manhattan restaurants, it's good enough for the rest of the industry."

Sourcing food under green parameters will present many challenges, York admits, for both the purchasing chef and for suppliers. But she hopes that setting 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."

A monumental challenge

While select U.S. seafood companies are just beginning to assess their carbon footprint, the movement has already gained traction with European buyers. Tesco, a supermarket chain in the United Kingdom that is now opening neighborhood stores in the United States under the name Fresh & Easy, announced earlier this year that it seeks to measure and eventually divulge the carbon footprint of each of its products.

"I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy where human comfort, activity and growth are inextricably linked with emitting carbon. And to transform it into one which can only thrive without depending on carbon," said Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, in a speech to stakeholders in January. "This is a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution 
in thinking."

Tesco's ambitious plan has been met with skepticism and scorn in the media and even company officials have admitted that gauging the carbon output of its 70,000 items is "problematic." Still, no such effort has gotten off the ground in the United States.

"European consumers are at least 10 years ahead of U.S. consumers as far as supporting green and sustainable products," says 
EcoFish's Lovejoy.

Sourcing energy-efficient seafood remains a voluntary act in the United States, with few buyers willing or able to go the extra mile down an inevitably long paper trail of record keeping. It remains to be seen if the added effort will pay off with increased sales or enough reduced greenhouse gases to make a difference. And any groundswell with consumers must be fueled at the retail level, which won't be easy, says Lovejoy.

"Seafood is the most complex food category on the planet," Lovejoy says. "It'll take years to sort this out."

And getting the entire seafood industry to join the cause may require something more than the promise of a moral high ground with consumers.

"If there's a price to be paid in the form of, say, a carbon tax, then you'll see markets shift," says Tyedmers. "People won't stop buying [air-freighted goods]. But they'll be doing it with a greater awareness of the implications."

Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

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