SEAFOOD FOR THOUGHT: You can’t have ‘Farm to Table’ without the farm

Is this organic? Free-range? Grass fed? These questions about our food are relatively common place, especially in the United States. In fact, an entire movement of ‘Farm to Table’ has gained enough traction to warrant inclusion in food business models and marketing campaigns. However, the main focus typically falls squarely on land-based foods, like chickens and cows, while seafood has garnered less attention.

Where and how seafood ends up on your plate is convoluted (see my last post for more details), but the socially recognized food categorizations don’t really reflect the intricacies. One common, general distinction is ‘farmed vs. wild.’ Farmed (aka aquaculture) seafood refers to organisms raised in aquatic environments (ocean, lakes, tanks), while wild seafood is capture based (aka fishing/hunting). Notably, public consensus appears to favor wild over farmed because of perceived health and naturalness (that’s a word right?). Whether this is a founded concern depends on the farm and the animal (just like land-based farming!), and will be the focus of my next blog topic (SPOILER: aquaculture can be done responsibly).

The public may perceive aquaculture less favorably, yet their increased consumption of farmed raised seafood speaks volumes. Aquaculture now contributes to a little over 50% of all seafood worldwide. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that by 2025 the majority of seafood we consume will come from aquaculture (Fig. 1); appearing to be mostly motivated by price and general unawareness of aquatic farming. Yet, our continual increase in seafood consumption from aquaculture should motivate the consumer to ask “where it came from.” We need a little Portlandia in our seafood traceability conversation.

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Figure 1. Relative contribution of capture fisheries and aquaculture towards what we consume now and in 10 years. Figure from FAO (2016) Global Fish report.

Traceability is a huge issue. In the United States, most of the seafood we consume is not from here; the majority comes from China (Figure 2). In fact, about 90% of US seafood is imported. As a result, importing most of our seafood makes it exceedingly difficult to know how a species was farmed (or caught), returning us to ‘Farm to Table’ (or lack thereof) for aquaculture.

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Figure 2. Seafood trade flows of North & Central America (share of total 2014 imports). Figure from FAO (2016) Global Fish report.

Aquaculture plays a major role in meeting global seafood demands. Love it or hate it, without it you most likely would not be enjoying that reasonably priced salmon or that non-seasonal shrimp cocktail. Yet, the motivations that drive us to consider our land-based food sources are not being applied as strongly to our seas. The United States has made great strides to improve our capture fisheries, but we rank 17th in aquaculture production; just behind the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (FAO 2016). As a result, the ‘Farm to Table’ construct, at least in the USA, is currently near impossible to achieve.

Societal trade-offs are at the heart of this discussion. Aquaculture, like all other food production industries, had a rough start that had a severe impact on the environment and public opinion (rightfully so). However, much like fisheries and other farming approaches, aquaculture production has greatly improved in many areas and has bright prospects if science and policy can support sustainable growth. In the United States we devote comparatively little support to aquaculture research and regulation improvements, yet we continue to source and consume farmed seafood without knowing where it is from or the impacts it is having on the environment. In the end, we can’t have ‘Farm to Table’ without the farm.

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