This article first appeared in The Vancouver Province.
By Jay Lugar, Canada Program Director, MSC
Conversations around food have evolved tremendously, and for good reason. They increasingly involve thinking about important issues like food production, greenhouse gas emissions and impacts that our food systems have on oceans, natural habitats and the environment overall. Shifting trends and planetary needs have slowly come into focus with concepts like the 100-mile diet, farm-to-fork, clean label, and sustainable sourcing. And as we gradually connect the dots between physical, societal and environmental health, we start thinking about the role our food choices play in that equation. While the newest Food Guide is a giant step toward addressing some of our modern needs and challenges, it seems to be missing a crucial component: what we as consumers can do to ensure our food choices do not negatively impact the environment. Because without a healthy planet we simply cannot produce healthy food, and we shouldn’t have to choose between the two.
In simply deciding what we eat, we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Research conducted on climate change and food systems revealed that food production is responsible for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to research published in Science Magazine, in order to provide enough food for a global population that will hit more than 9 billion by 2050, we must change our eating habits and switch to more sustainable food systems.
In our quest for both healthy diets and sustainable food sources, we should not forget that our oceans are an incredible source of wild and healthy seafood that requires very little use of fresh water and no arable land, pesticides or fertilizers. Best of all, it is capable of replenishing itself if fished sustainably.
For those of us striving to include more plant-based items on our plates but still not able or willing to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, luckily fish remains a staple protein recommended in the Food Guide as a significant source of vitamin D as well as valuable mineral nutrients such as selenium, iodine, magnesium, iron and copper.
And when it comes to the environmental impact of seafood, a 2014 UK-based study found that on average, a pescatarian diet has a largely similar carbon footprint as a vegetarian diet, which remains significantly lower than a meat-eater’s diet.
Once you’ve decided to add reasonable portions of seafood to your healthy diet, you may be among the 83% of Canadians who, according to an Ipsos survey for Global News, also think it’s important to know where your food comes from. So how do you know your seafood is truly sustainable?
Of the many logos and claims about seafood sustainability on the market, a good benchmark to determine credibility can start with certification. Certifications must meet much more rigorous criteria to prove they’re credible. For instance, certifications for seafood like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) meet the highest international requirements like those of the UN FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing, the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative benchmark (GSSI) or the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL).
Another way to identify a reputable label is whether it includes ocean-to-plate traceability that provides checks and balances for any number of claims ranging from sustainability, species, catch method, farm or country of origin. To be credible and free from conflict of interest, traceability is best verified by a third-party, which is another component built into both the MSC and ASC programs.
Canada could take a page from the books of countries like Brazil and Sweden that have integrated sustainability tips in their Food Guides to help consumers navigate how to identify credible sustainable food labels. In the case of the Sweden, their Food Guide points consumers towards labels like the MSC for wild, sustainable and traceable seafood and the ASC for traceable and responsibly farmed seafood.
Whether the shift is towards a plant-based diet or supporting certified sustainable products, the benefits are undeniable. According to the UN FAO, sustainable diets have low environmental impacts that contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life today and for future generations.
So, the next time you’re at your local fishmonger or grocery store, ask about sustainability claims because every single purchase can have a large and measurable impact on the health of our oceans and our food security for tomorrow.