Don’t Stop Pushing for Higher Standards

Don’t Stop Pushing for Higher Standards

By Fiona McGregor

A recent article in TakePart asked whether shrimp can really be sustainable, but the perspective was largely from that of the consumer, the western, and the developed. What about the people whose livelihoods are lost because of shrimp farming? What about the impact on the environment? What about overconsumption?

With the increased popularity of sustainable eating, consumers are being asked to query the food stuffs they buy in the supermarket or eat at restaurants. Consumers are increasingly demanding foods whose production leaves the environment unharmed. Smaller and significantly less shiny apples make the list, as do free-range, pastured and foraged heritage chickens. But what about shrimp?

Garnelen_im_Verkauf_fcmJane Lear in a recent article wrote that ‘you can buy all sorts of shrimp without shirking on sustainability concerns’. This, she claims, is because of improved management practices, particularly in Asia, that have reduced the levels of toxic chemicals and antibiotic residues that make it into our food, our bodies, and the delicate ecosystems in the areas where this farming occurs. This, combined with access to some domestic species (she highlights Washington for its coldwater shrimp) led to her conclusion that significant progress has been made in the accessibility of sustainable shrimp. This shrimp is clearly identifiable in supermarkets with labels, such as ‘Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed’, while the Marine Stewardship Council, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Global Aquaculture Alliance BAP and Naturland further certify some shrimp farms as sustainable.

However, despite this headway, consumers can and should demand more. Even if the farms Jane Lear highlights are operating at a suitably responsible level, can we reasonably expect that a critical mass of shrimp farmers, particularly those in Southeast Asia, will be capable of feasibly implementing similar practices? The majority of shrimp farmed in Asia are grown in aquaculture ponds. The shrimp are injected with antibiotics and develop in pesticide-filled waters. In three years, the ponds are so toxic that they have to be abandoned, resulting in the construction of new ponds and the destruction of vibrant mangroves.

In just 30 years, over 1 million hectares (about the size of the Dallas/ Fort Worth region, the eighth largest city in the world) of shrimp ponds were created in mangrove habitats. This resulted in the loss of 35% of all mangroves, and with the continual loss of an extra 1% each year. These are not numbers that can be adjusted easily, especially since those farmers doing the most harm have the least incentive and the fewest resources to rectify their behaviours.

Worse still is the fact that the progress trumpeted by Lear does nothing to address the massive gaps that exist in dealing with legal classifications of shrimp. Currently there is no approved standard for organic seafood in the U.S. and no government or official definition for terms like ‘hormone free’, ‘antibiotic free’ or ‘sustainable’ in regards to shrimp. This means that these legally vague but rhetorically powerful terms can be applied by a wide variety of farmers, thus responsible farmers indistinguishable from their dubious counterparts.

Despite what Jane Lear suggests, there is still plenty more that we as individual consumers can do to encourage sustainable shrimp farming. We cannot settle for the progress thus far.