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Increasing The Organic Share Of Aquaculture

21 November 2011, at 12:00am

There is a strong level of consensus among the aquaculture industry, NGOs and consumer organisations that certified organic aquacultureoffers credible ways to overcome the sustainability deficits of this sector. Speaking at Aquaculture Europe 2011, Stefan Bergleiter from Naturland Association looks at if and how organic aquaculture will replace conventional aquaculture products.

Certified organic aquaculture started in the early nineties, when organic farmers in Austria and Germany developed carp ponds as a side-activity, selling regionally to farm stores and weekend markets. In general, however, aquaculture is highly globalized, and production usually takes place far from the main markets.

For example, German domestic aquaculture only contributes about three per cent to fish consumption. But an impressive increase in organic fish volumes has been achieved through projects in north-western Europe (organic salmon), the Mediterranean (organic sea bass and bream), south-east Asia and South America (organic shrimp, tilapia, and pangasius).

A census of organic aquaculture conducted in 2009 (Bergleiter et al., 2009) showed production in Europe to be approximately 25,000 t, 20,000 t in Asia, 7,000 t in the Americas, 2,000 t in Africa, and around 1,000 t in Oceania. Since then, new projects have been certified and in 2011 there may be about 80,000 t of certified organic seafood altogether. World aquaculture production (excluding seaweed), is around 60 million t – so only 0.1 per cent of total production is currently certified and marketed as organic.

This figure appears to shatter any hope of achieving “100 per cent organic” in cultured seafood - but this is far from the case.

An overwhelming part of the world aquaculture industry is already producing very close to, or even in accordance with, organic principles, but hasn’t translated this into formal certification, e.g. bivalve shellfish (13.1 million t or 24.9% of global aquaculture) and seaweed culture which in general are “no input“ systems.

The areas where the industry doesn’t meet organic standards are mostly related to the recycling or re-use of ropes and other disposable culture materials and to appropriately siting farms in areas with the best water quality. Both these issues are increasingly being tackled by national and international legislation, so that organic group certification of large areas seems within reach.

Pilot certifications of existing fish farms in Ireland, Chile, and the UK are expected to awaken the market for organic mussels, and for convenience products, e.g. deep-frozen mussel dishes, which combine the benefits of organic ingredients and processing.

Cyprinids (carp family) is by far the largest family of farmed finfish (20.4 Mio t or 38.8 per cent). These are mostly produced by Asian family enterprises and consumed locally. Typically, they apply organic production principles, often using polycultures that include rice, ducks, or pigs, and give a general priority to fertilising rather than feeding.

Nevertheless, these systems would certainly still face several obstacles if they were to seek organic certification, mainly due to gaps in quality management and the traceability of different inputs. Ongoing urbanization and increased domestic exports to the big cities are likely to lead to much more attention being paid to food quality and safety, which will result in moves towards standardization and reliable certification.

Shrimp and prawns are the most important aquaculture export items from many Southern countries. In south-east Asian countries, a large proportion of these are farmed in extensive, low or no-input systems that are very suitable to be converted into certified organic operations.

The major challenge is here to establish Internal Control Systems, enabling large numbers of small-scale farmers to run their operations in accordance with agreed standards, e.g. regarding inputs. At moment, there is approximately 7,000 t of organic shrimp production certified by Naturland in Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Thailand, only a fraction of the potential in these countries.

In South America and Madagascar, shrimp companies are usually large, integrated enterprises, which have the ability to implement organic standard requirements directly and to take immediate action along the whole chain. The farms produce using a semi-intensive model, i.e. feeding the shrimp, together with additional fertilisation. The main challenge for organic candidates here will be to source certified organic vegetable feedstuff at a reasonable cost. This is being tackled by initiating pilot organic projects producing manioc, rice, soy and corn in these countries.

Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica and Madagascar, currently produce approximately 5,000 t of certified organic shrimp. If we compare these figures with annual German shrimp imports (some 40,000 t) and consider the potential of converting extensive farming areas within a relatively short period of time, it seems feasible that conventionally farmed shrimp may just disappear from the shelves in near future.

Salmon is a very sought-after aquaculture product and, due to feed and energy costs, prices are steadily increasing. Over the past decade, organic salmon has become well established in European markets. In Ireland, certified organic production already makes up more than half of the total salmon volumes and strong market demand is currently pushing other countries to follow this example.

The requirements for farming organic salmon are clear and widely accepted, with the goals on increasing product quality and environmental performance. Yet these standards are also demanding and expensive to meet. As long as here is a demand for lower quality salmon, grown under less strict environmental conditions, the two major salmon producing countries, Chile and Norway will be reluctant to contribute to the organic momentum.

The other main organic aquaculture species can be located somewhere between the scenarios given in this overview: The Mediterranean finfish species can be compared to organic salmon, but haven’t yet had the same period of mainstreaming. Organic trout and char producers in central Europe are usually smaller farms and still mainly focus on local markets.

Delivering to large retail structures remains a challenge to them. Organic tilapia and pangasius production can be compared to semi-intensive shrimp farms; the critical factor in organic conversion is obtaining a supply of certified organic feed from – as far as possible domestic – organic agriculture.

All in all, it is obvious that there is no obstacle from the producers’ side for a complete replacement of conventional aquaculture products within a few years. However, one must consider that aquaculture producers rely on clear signals and commitment from the retailers.

The profit margins for aquaculture farms are small, and it is very difficult for them to prefinance adjustments to their farming system without a clear economical sign and backing. Responsible seafood sourcing needs to be a joint marketing venture that involves both ends of the value chain.

The single most critical factor in the future growth of organic aquaculture is the supply of certified organic vegetable feed. The supply of vegetable feed is being widely discussed in the aquaculture industry as a whole, so that this is no weakness, but it is a more central issue when seeking to meet the stricter sustainability criteria set by organic standards.

While there are other “green” aquaculture labels these typically do not address the sustainability of the feed components that are used.

November 2011

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