Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable?
Rebecca Weel pushes a baby stroller with her 18-month-old up to the seafood case at Whole Foods, near ground zero in New York. As she peers at shiny fillets of salmon, halibut and Chilean sea bass labeled "certified sustainable," Weel believes that if she purchases this seafood, she will help protect the world's oceans from overfishing.
But some leading environmentalists have a different take: Consumers like Weel are being misled by a global program that amounts to "greenwashing" — a strategy that makes consumers think they are protecting the planet, when actually they are not.
At Whole Foods, the seafood counter displays blue labels from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international, nonprofit organization. The MSC is a prime example of an economic trend: Private groups, not the government, are telling consumers what is good or bad for the environment. The MSC says its label guarantees that the wild seafood was caught using methods that do not deplete the natural supply. It also guarantees that fishing companies do not cause serious harm to other life in the sea, from coral to dolphins.
The idea is spreading fast throughout the food industry. Megachains like Target, Costco and Kroger are selling seafood with the MSC label. McDonald's says you are munching on "certified sustainable" wild Alaskan pollock every time you eat a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. The fast-food company has used MSC-certified fish since 2007 in the U.S., and as of February, they are putting the MSC logo on their fish sandwich boxes.
Consumers like Weel say the labels help them feel better about the products they buy. "I want to feel that I'm doing the right thing," says Weel, a pediatrician, as her 4 ½-year-old daughter bolts into the vegetable aisle in neon-colored boots. When Weel shops for seafood, she says, she wants to make choices "that will help preserve the wild fish populations in the oceans."
Executives at Whole Foods say they are helping consumers do exactly that, by pledging in recent years to sell as many MSC-certified products as possible. Seafood is the last major food that people catch in the wild, and "we can't just go out and find more fish to catch," says Carrie Brownstein, global seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods.
Brownstein cites a 2012 United Nations report that warned that almost 30 percent of the world's wild fisheries are "overexploited," and more than 57 percent of wild fisheries are "at or very close" to the limit.
Other groups have devised ranking systems for seafood. The Monterey Bay Aquarium labels products like a traffic light — green, yellow or red — to urge shoppers to buy or avoid a particular fish. The Blue Ocean Institute has a similar system. The MSC reports it has labeled roughly 8 percent of the global seafood catch, worth more than $3 billion. That makes it the most widespread and best-known rating scheme around the world.
A recent survey of 3,000 Americans, conducted on behalf of NPR, suggests that a majority of consumers want to feel good about the seafood they buy. The poll by Truven Health Analytics found that almost 80 percent of the people who eat seafood regularly said it is "important" or "very important" that their seafood is sustainably caught.
If they buy MSC-labeled seafood, they may be paying a premium. Brownstein says Whole Foods charges more for some of its seafood labeled "certified sustainable," although she wouldn't give numbers. Some fishing industry executives told NPR that they are getting roughly 10 percent more for their MSC-labeled products than for seafood that's not certified sustainable.
That's one reason why many environmentalists who supported the MSC in the past say you might be troubled to know what the MSC and supermarkets like Whole Foods are not telling you:
"We would prefer they didn't use the word sustainable," says Gerry Leape, an oceans specialist at the Pew Environment Group, one of the major foundations working on oceans policies. Leape has supported the MSC for more than a decade as a member of its advisory Stakeholder Council.
But he and other critics say that the MSC system has been certifying some fisheries despite evidence that the target fish are in trouble, or that the fishing industry is harming the environment. And critics say the MSC system has certified other fisheries as sustainable even though there is not enough evidence to know how they are affecting the environment.
When a customer sees the MSC's sustainable label at the supermarket, "the consumer looks at the fish and says, 'Oh, it has the label on it, it must be sustainable,' " Leape says. "And in some fisheries that the MSC has certified, that's not necessarily the case."
Biologist Susanna Fuller, co-director of marine programs at Canada's Ecology Action Centre, agrees. "We know ... that blue stamp doesn't mean that you're sustainable," she says. When asked if consumers should choose MSC-labeled seafood, Fuller pauses. "It's a gamble," she says.
Still, even the MSC's sharpest critics say they support the broad ideas behind the organization and its stated goals.
"Originally I thought it was a good idea," says Jim Barnes, director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a network of dozens of environmental groups around the world. "The world needed something like this to help steer consumer decisions, and so I wasn't against it at all at the beginning. And I'm not totally against it now." But Barnes worries that the MSC is straying from its mission and needs a dramatic overhaul. "It can be a force for good. If it continues on the path that it's on, however, and doesn't solve a lot of these issues that have been raised," he says, "I don't think it will be."
Protecting The Oceans And The Bottom Line
The MSC was born because of a crisis.
Michael Sutton, one of its founders, says that he and his colleagues dreamed up the idea after the cod industry collapsed off the Nova Scotia coast in 1992. Cod fishing had been the foundation of the region's economy and culture, worth an estimated $700 million each year. But when the cod population plunged to a fraction of previous levels, the Canadian government banned cod fishing — putting thousands of people out of work.
"It was so bad in some of these coastal communities, the government had to send in suicide-prevention teams," recalls Sutton, who was then vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. "We were not only trashing our marine environment, but we were ruining the character of coastal communities that had existed on fisheries for centuries," Sutton says.
Sutton and other environmental advocates, and many scientists, warned that the cod collapse taught the world a sobering lesson: Government agencies that were supposed to monitor and regulate fishing were often doing a lousy job. Cod weren't the only fish in trouble. Studies showed that populations of major species like swordfish, marlin and tuna were plunging too. "So we needed to do something drastic," Sutton says.
He and colleagues decided to convince industry executives that protecting the oceans would also protect their bottom line. Sutton made a pilgrimage to the Unilever conglomerate, then one of the largest producers of frozen seafood — including fish sticks.
"My pitch to Unilever was, 'The future of their frozen fish business is at stake,' " Sutton remembers. "Overfishing is not only bad for the environment, but it's really bad for business, because it means that they're not going to have fish in the future the way they have them today."
Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund joined hands in 1997, and set up the MSC. Unilever eventually sold its seafood subsidiary and left the program, but the founding partner left its mark: From the day the MSC opened its doors in London, it has been a balancing act between industry and the environment.
Today, the MSC has more than 100 employees worldwide, including about 60 at its headquarters in a renovated building down the street from St. Paul's Cathedral.
"MSC has a global vision," says Rupert Howes, the organization's chief executive officer. "We want to see the global oceans transformed onto a sustainable basis."
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Image courtesy of Samantha_Bell via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)