B V Bhatt & Sreerupa Guha
Seafood products are easily available in the market shelves or in restaurants, wherein the consumer bases its choice of selecting the seafood based on certain key attributes of the product i.e. quality, price, and origin. The consumer is gradually also asking about food safety, ethical, environmental and labor practices, and animal welfare measures taken while producing and also within the supply chain process to bring the seafood on their table.
The information gap between the seafood on your table and the huge tonnes harvested in the various aquaculture hubs around the globe is supposedly addressed by the certification and labeling schemes. FAO states there are currently 30 certification schemes and eight key international agreements relevant to aquaculture certification at least. There has been a proliferation of private standard-setting bodies and organizations certifying compliance with private standards.
These private aquaculture certifications cover a range of issues like aquaculture practices, environmental aspects, food safety, and aquaculture inputs like feed and chemicals. A study conducted by FAO in Asia, Africa, and Latin America showed that it is not uncommon to find one establishment having multiple certifications and each of the certifications have their own requirements. Certifying agencies need to perform audits to verify compliance with the requirements.
Aquaculture industry in India
India is one of the leading fish and aquaculture producers in the world. While the country is 3rd largest fish producer in the world and 2nd largest aquaculture producer, it ranks as the 4th largest exporter of seafood. It is also to be noted that India is the largest supplier of frozen shrimps to the USA and Japan besides exporting huge quantities to European markets. Indian fisheries and aquaculture are important sectors of food production providing nutritional security, livelihood support, and gainful employment to over 14 million people.
Asian countries including India’s majority of the aquaculture products is mainly produced by small scale producers. Shrimp culture which started as a traditional backyard activity in the country about half a century back is now on a sound footing based on scientific and technical management. Continuous improvements are taking place both in technology and practices starting from hatchery to farming and other allied activities.
Regulation of an industry made up of so many small units is challenging, and after several attempts to effectively control the industry, the Indian government introduced the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act 2005. The Act mandated registration of all farms raising shrimp in the designated “coastal area”. A 2009 update on the Act authorized farming of the non-native whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei), and production of this species has exploded since 2010 onwards.
In Indian aquaculture industry, the increase in international fish trade has led to the emergence of major issues related to i) environmental impacts of aquaculture as a result of its increasing role for fish food supply, ii) consumer protection and food safety requirements, iii) animal health and animal welfare, iv) social responsibility and v) traceability and consumer information along the aquaculture supply chain.
Food safety and consumer protection
Consumer protection and food safety remain a major concern, particularly in light of the increasing complexity of supply chains. This has led to greater awareness and demand of consumers for safe and high-quality food. Use of antibiotics in aquaculture resulted in several issues such as drug residues in food fish leading to health issues and also posing the problem of Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR). This has resulted in the consumers demanding residue free food fish and as a consequence the regulatory authorities have started putting in place various measures for ensuring residue free food fish.
India being a country dependent on sustained increase in seafood exports for earning valuable foreign exchange has to take suitable measures in this direction. Sustainability of aquaculture is also related to the biosecurity protocols and the responsible use of chemicals and pharmacologically active substances in the production chain starting from hatcheries to grow out farms.
Food safety concern of the importers has made the farmers and others to think various measures to make Shrimp aquaculture a sustainable operation.
Meeting increasing consumer expectations regarding wholesomeness, sustainability and responsibility is crucial, and proper certification an increasingly valuable tool to achieve these goals are deployed by many agencies.
Therefore, certification has become an important tool for marketing and access to advanced overseas countries. With certification emerging as one market governance response, developing country producers and exporters have raised concerns about certification requirement. These requirements act as a technical barrier towards access to international markets, while domestic consumers in their own home markets have not shown much appetite for certified seafoods
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were also driven to these concerns and developed strategies to wield influence over consumers’ purchasing decisions and especially over the procurement policies of major buyers and retailers. As the last link in the supply chain between producers and consumers, retailers aim at translating and transmitting these consumer demands by imposing private standards and certification back through the supply chain. These are majorly borne by producers and processors, to reflect their increased responsibility towards consumers and to prevent any risk to their reputation. These developments have resulted in the proliferation of aquaculture standards and certification schemes designed to trace the origin of fish, its quality and its safety, and the environmental and/or social conditions prevailing during aquaculture production, processing and distribution of fish and feed.
The current requirement of certification standards is not a result of direct consumer preferences but rather it is a requirement of the retailers and supply chain. This leaves the producer with none or very little price incentive from adopting the certification standards. Moreover these standards have ignored the contribution of women and other marginalised groups in the farm.
Educating small farmers
Nevertheless, certification has emerged as one of the major governance tools in the aquaculture and exporting sector which cannot be ignored. Though research findings suggest that aquaculture standards are not appropriate for small producers since much of the current criteria are not viable at this scale for a country like India, a separate national standard customized specifically for small producers is the need of the hour.
Aquaculture in India is mostly undertaken by large number of relatively small-scale farmers. These farmers are resource poor and face a variety of constraints that increasingly centre around questions of how best to develop more sustainable production practices in the long run. Sustainability is really about changing behaviour; and in this case the behaviour of these large number of small-scale aquaculture farmers. They should be part of the solution to many of today’s problems (e.g. food safety, environmental integrity, social equity, food and nutritional security, societal harmony).
Solidaridad Network has been working in the aquaculture supply chain mainly through their engagement with small and marginal farmers who form the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ of the sector and has been an innovator in the road to achieve sustainable solutions for producers. This was started with the launch of Fairtrade movement way back in the 80s by Solidaridad and also to being the founding members of numerous producers driven certification standards.
Solidaridad plays the role of a facilitator between the global requirements and these small-scale farmers. Our engagement with farmers in various regions of the country has shown us the eagerness of the farmers to learn about new and innovative solutions which can be provided to them at the right time. However, most small-scale farmers have no knowledge regarding the certification standards and need major behaviour change which leads to the solution to many of today’s problems (e.g. food safety, environmental integrity, social equity, food and nutritional security, societal harmony).
This is only achievable through their involvement and empowerment. Current standards operating in the country through third party certification is not appropriate for a small producer such as Pradipta Mandal and they are actually targeting big farmers who own large areas and operate on a vertical integrated system.
The burden of complying with these standards may fall disproportionately on small producers, for whom the cost of achieving certifiable status is relatively higher.
Furthermore, as certification programmes proliferate, consumers and producers face choices as to which certification programmes carry the most value. Competing certifying claims may confuse consumers, causing them to lose confidence in standards and thus depriving the approach of its value. It also raises questions about which certification programmes can best serve consumer protection, the environment and the producers. Thus, the credibility of the standards and of their certification and accreditation bodies is of paramount importance.
To allow small-scale producers to access certification; schemes that are increasingly including the possibility to certify producers’ groups or clusters, in addition to individual businesses are also necessary and required. The current requirement of certification standards is not only a result of direct consumer preferences but it is mostly driven by the retailers and supply chain. This leaves the producer with none or very little price incentive from adopting the certification standards.
As standards, certification schemes and claims proliferate; their value is being questioned by many. Producers and producing countries in particular question whether these private standards and certification schemes duplicate or complement government work, especially in relation to food safety and animal health. In the absence of regulatory frameworks, the setting/adoption of market standards by a company or a coalition of companies or retailers with significant market power may increase the risk of anti-competitive behaviour and the companies may use this power to impose, for instance, lower prices throughout the supply chain
Solidaridad has long championed the benefits of farmer producer groups to provide farmers with the means to access markets and knowledge hubs and in turn benefit the entire group and not just individuals.
Cluster/group management in simple terms can be defined as collective planning, decision making and implementation of crop activities by a group of farmers in a cluster through participatory approach in order to accomplish their common goal (e.g. reduce risks and maximise returns, achieve economy of scale). Attempts at empowering groups of small farmers have been more effective compared to individuals. The concept of collective and participatory decision-making process while pursuing the primary livelihood (in our case shrimp farming) appears to have more positive impacts.
Sustainability can also be improved as a result of individual initiatives, cooperative initiatives, and government initiatives. If shrimp farming has to grow successfully and sustainably, it is probable that all three types will be required, but government must play a pivotal and pro-active role in facilitating such initiatives
Some countries in Asia have come up with their own national certification schemes. For example, Thailand came up with a Code of Conduct for Responsible Aquaculture Standard in 1997 and Good Aquaculture Practice Standard in 2000. In 2009, ThaiGAP for shrimp was developed based on FAO Technical Guidelines for aquaculture certification. In Vietnam, the national aquaculture certification scheme is called VietGAP and according to the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) 30% of intensive and semi-intensive aquaculture systems will be certified by 2015 and 80% by 2025. In 2015, 44 farms have come under BAP certification of GAA and there are attempts to harmonise VietGAP with BAP certification and GlobalGAP certification.
As a starting point of developing the standards, Better Management Practices (BMPs) are promoted in aquaculture, outlining the norms for responsible farming of aquatic animals. These are management interventions to address the identified risk factors in hatchery and farming.
Aquaculture BMP and cluster management programs were started way back and developed and implemented by MPEDA in India since the early 2000. Indian experience and lessons learned especially on BMPs and cluster approach were used in other countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand etc. by various donors and partners who support aquaculture sustainability. In parallel, there have been several programs in Thailand as well supporting implementation of GAP and BMP programs in shrimp aquaculture since early 2000, including group certification programs supported under various national and international programs.
Considering the wide diversity of type of farms and their target markets, it will be useful to have two levels of certification. While food safety cannot be compromised and animal health is also as important, the following are recommended as major conclusions. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) may develop mandatory product standards for fish and fishery products in India.
Further, there is a need for National Aquaculture Certification Standards for the country. National Good Aquaculture Practice certification will cover the process of production of fish/shrimp by Aquaculture and harmonizing the same with other standards operating elsewhere in the world. Perhaps, the National Good Aquaculture Practices certification standard may be developed by a responsible standard-setting organization of the country involving all stakeholders including the private sector and line departments.
(Bhatt is a Consultant while Guha is working as Programme Manager Aquaculture with Solidaridad. Views expressed are personal.)
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