Sustainability & fish farming: working with a real case

Aquaculture, such as fish farming, is a key industry to ensure  sustainable food production in the future. Foods deriving from the seas face many challenges such overfishing and water pollution. At the same time, sea food has many benefits such as low climate impact and high nutritional value.

It is quite clear today that wild fish supply is not sufficient and that aquaculture is necessary in some form in order to supply current populations with sea food. However, fish farming has been criticized for unsustainable practices through the years and the industry still struggles with some of them like sea lice, escapes and sustainable feed sources.

In the course I teach at NHH ‘Measuring sustainability’ we each year work with  a real case on how to measure sustainability. Last autumn, we collaborated with Norwegian Responsible Investment association Norsif on how we can measure and evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture companies. One of the things I love about these cases is the creativity the students show when coming up with new ideas and solutions. I truly believe this kind of creativity, combined with academic thinking and facts, is one of the most important skills we can teach students.

One of the learning points from working with the aquaculture case is how important national regulation is for sustainable fish farming. One of the drastic differences is the use of antibiotics. Aquaculture uses significant amounts of antibiotics, which is a critical issue considering antibiotic resistance, but the industry also shows that it can do without it when it has to, such as in Norway.

Another difficult issue is that fish farming in Europe is mostly done with omnivorous fish such as salmon. It is less efficient to raise fish that partly eats other fish than fish that only feeds on algea. Instead of feeding the salmon other fish, we could eat this fish directly and thus skip the step of raising the salmon. The fish in the feed can also lead to further overfishing. Of course we can feed salmon a vegetarian diet but salmon that are fed on vegetable rather than animal proteins may be lacking in Omega-3, which is one of the main reasons salmon are so healthy for a human diet. A better solution would be to instead farm a fish that naturally feeds on for example algea.

Another key issue for sustainability, the students discovered, is future orientation of the companies and investment in research to find sustainable solutions to issues we have not yet solved. During the course, we we’re visited by the head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, Wenche Gronbrekk, who explained how the company works to address sustainability issues. Wenche has answered a few of my questions below and also describes their investment in future solutions: iFarm.

Sabina: The Norwegian aquaculture industry has made quite some progress in terms of addressing its sustainability challenges. What are, in your opinion, some of the main achievements? 
Wenche: We have made great progress in lifting the industry standard the past years through collaboration –  through dialogue and knowledge sharing between government, research and industry. Also, in the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), addressing key issues such as standardization, feed ingredients and biosecurity. Vaccine development has also been key to advancing sustainability to the level we see today.

Sabina: Still, as we have learnt when working with this case, challenges remain. What’s on top of your to-do-list in terms of sustainability?
Wenche: Sustainability requires continuous effort, and we work every day to be better than just complying with minimum standards. Developing new solutions that address key problems is also a priority – such as our iFarm concept. It may solve many of the key challenges today through individualized treatment of each fish, increasing animal health and welfare, optimizing feeding and any need for treatment, which may in turn reduce the environmental footprint of our activities.

Sabina: Sustainability is, according to its definition, about the long term perspective, future generations even. Still most organisations operate with a shorter time perspective in their day-to-day business. How are you able to take the long term perspective into account?
Wenche: Salmon farming is largely dependent on taking a long term view – we operate in the sea and biological risks do not respect financial quarters. To have a business over time, our operations need to be sustainable in all aspects: environmentally, socially and economically. 

Sabina: Many who work as sustainability officers or even head of sustainability find that change management is crucial in order to conduct their work. Is this your experience as well?
Wenche: As a sustainability officer you need to work across the organization, break silos and in many ways be a change agent. Integrating sustainability in business strategy also means that many companies need to innovate their business model – and it is my experience that sustainability professionals often play a central part in this transformation.

A big thank you to Wenche and Cermaq for sharing your experiences with us and also to Norsif and Norsif member Folketrygdfondet and Tine Fossland who attended the students presentations and provided feedback on their evaluation models. We could not have done this without you!

Why young women going vegetarian for the climate is not necessarily a good thing

Last year one in five of Swedish young women became vegetarian because of climate change. Some might think that this is excellent news. We hear a lot that we should all eat less meat, ideally become vegetarians. The complex problem of food and sustainability has been reduced to the simple statement that vegetables are all good and meat overall bad. Unsurprisingly, such black and white statements are oversimplifications. One of the simplifications is the issue of methane and whether or not it is part of the carbon cycle, as I’ve previously written about here.

Another simplification is how the climate impact of food is calculated. Many calculations are based on how much CO2 is released  per kilogram of the food. This, however, has been criticized by research that shows that calculating CO2 per volume, calorie or even nutrient will give different results. The researchers conclude that “the sustainability of alternative diets, matched for energy and nutrient adequacy, can only be made on the basis of calories and nutrient contents and not per gram of weight”. Surprisingly, if you calculate climate impact per calorie, lettuce appears worse than bacon. Basically, how we calculate the climate impact of food makes a big difference. Like, Gunnar Rundgren I believe that there’s a point in calculating emission per nutrient density.

Taking nutrients into account when calculating climate impact is important because, as Rockström has pointed out, food is both a key factor in the health epidemic as well as the climate. Half of Swedish female adolescents have iron deficiency, one in three women in general. It is well known that iron from meat type of sources is absorbed more easily (25%) than from vegetable sources (5-10%). Research on diets and climate change acknowledges that reduced meat in diets is especially problematic for young women for this reason.

If we encourage women with iron deficiency to become vegetarians, we’d better be sure it is beneficial for the climate.

I am not so sure it is and I’ll use the following example with two high impact foods to illustrate why. Lamb is generally viewed as the meat with the highest climate impact. Rice, because of methane emissions, is among the highest climate impact grains. A Swedish lamb provides a carbon footprint of 16 kg CO2-equivalent per slaughtered kg lamb. A kilo of Thai rice provides between 1.34- 3.57 CO2-e per kg. Let’s say 2.4 kg CO2-e/kg.

Calculating emissions according to weight, yes lamb (16/kg) is much worse for the climate than rice (2.4/kg). You can eat six times as much rice and still release less CO2.

However, we have all heard about empty calories. What’s important is not only how much we eat but the nutrients the food provides us with. And we have to consider a woman’s recommended daily intake of iron, around 15 mg (9 mg for men). So here’s the issue. You would have to eat 3.2 kg rice a day to get the daily iron allowance. And considering the sort of iron and its lower absorption, it is even more. If you instead eat lamb, maybe even liver, 300g/day is enough. Of course, in reality no one would rely on a single food to provide all the necessary iron but the figure shows how efficient liver would be in doing so.

So to get your recommended daily intake of iron, what is the climate impact? For Thai rice the climate impact is at least 7,68 kg CO2-e. For Swedish lamb liver it’s 4,8 kg CO2-e.

Now, you might say, young Swedish women know about empty calories and would go for broccoli rather than rice. Still lamb liver is more efficient than broccoli in delivering iron per kg CO2-e. You would have to eat more than 2,3 kg broccoli to get the recommended daily intake. In climate impact that’s (using the example of UK broccoli) ca 5,3 kg CO2-e.

My message is really this. We have to consider nutrient content and absorption instead of climate impact per weight or calorie. When we consider nutrient content and absorption, we may find that going vegetarian is not a good idea. Instead, eating small amounts of nutrient dense food, like lamb liver, helps young women to maintain their health.

It is more climate friendly to eat small amounts of nutrient dense foods than eating large quantities of empty calories.

The nutrient argument was highlighted by researchers with connections to the Swedish dairy industry in 2010. While we of course have to be wary of industry motives, I still believe the overall idea of considering nutrients in relation to climate impact is a sound idea. And the general lesson here is that how we calculate affects the results we get.

On the picture: grazing sheep on the west coast of Norway, are they really that bad for the climate? It depends on how you calculate.