Sustainability a profitable word — for some

If there has been one word that gets constantly overused and abused in the food production business, it has to be “sustainable.”

If there has been one word that gets constantly overused and abused in the food production business, it has to be “sustainable.” It’s the darling word of the usual eco-suspects in pursuing almost any cause. I chuckle when its used in reference to the energy industry by green zealots — you have heard the tiresome rhetoric like, “At the present rate of use, fossil fuels are not sustainable, we need to switch to green energy,” Of course, this is while improved technologies have increased, the supply of fossil fuels for the next 1,000 years — now that’s sustainability!

Every food production sector seems to have to deal with the sustainable factor sooner or later. Retailers are particularly susceptible because of their fear of any negative consumer perception. Green groups, ever-mindful of a fundraising opportunity, are quick to prey on that retailer fear. An example is with seafood where various coalitions of green groups many of them with no connection to oceans have set up seafood certification organizations of one type or another. They know from the organic food and fair-trade experience that there is money to be made in the certification business, particularly if retailers can be coerced into buying into the scam.

At last count, there were seven seafood certification groups, agencies, companies whatever. Many are based in other countries and it’s difficult to determine who or what justifies their existence or credibility. Certification is a competitive business, as some groups heap abuse on each claiming they are fronts for the industry or unworthy. That has proved to be a dilemma for retailers, obliging many to seek certification from multiple groups just to be safe from being criticized by those they left out. Most have one thing in common — it costs retailers, processors, distributors and fishermen money to be certified. Most of these groups want fees and royalties for the use of their certification logo. It could be compared to a sort of protection racket — being that if you don’t pay our fees, we will tell consumers negative allegations about the fish you are selling. The problem then is if one retailer capitulates, the rest feel compiled to also join.

At this point, the seafood certification groups are laughing all the way to the bank, being they don’t have any real ongoing costs outside of some PR campaigns on the Internet. It’s not as if they use any of the fees to develop more fish habitat or anything like that. In fact, they have a vested interest in seeing more fish stock exploitation, that way they can keep up the propaganda machine to keep retailers in line and paying.

The seafood certification groups do engage in some hypocrisy when it comes to what kinds of seafood they certify. For instance, some fish farming is OK, but some isn’t. Salmon farming is considered the evilest of practices, even though it has been shown to be a safe and sound way to provide healthy, affordable fish to millions and has been carried out for more than 100 years. Those same groups then state that wild salmon fishing is sustainable even though the fishery has steadily declined for the past 100 years — go figure. Some closed fish farms seem OK to these groups — but they don’t have the scale to supply millions and would require massive energy imports to operate. It all seems elitist.

Recently, the seafood certification groups were confronted with a threat to their cosy racket. A seafood stakeholder committee had established standards that would create an “organic fish” certification. Ironically it would mean that wild fish could not be labelled as “organic,” as there was no way to certify that the fish swimming in the ocean were eating only organic food. However, fish raised on fish farms could be labelled as “organic,” because if they followed the standards, their food could be identified as organic sourced. The irony would be that consumers who are more familiar with the word “organic” as being natural than sustainable, would buy farm raised over wild fish. What a delicious irony, so to speak.

Assorted organic and certification groups and their allies went on the offensive and claimed the “organic” fish label as misleading and would reflect badly on the credibility of their own programs. And so goes the sustainable, organic follies. Buyer beware, as the saying goes.

— Ahead of the Heard

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