The business of sustainable salmon
First published in The Huffington Post, by Gabrielle Walker, Redesigning business to meet global challenges
Flying over the scattered islands and sheltered bays of the Patagonian archipelago in Chile, you can spot faint lines in the water, arranged in branching grids like the teeth of a two-sided comb. Down at water level they resolve themselves into salmon farms: networks of floating walkways between which silver fish leap lazily out of the water in massive pens hemmed around with nets. These Chilean salmon farms, and similar ones in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Norway, form the basis of an industry that was born only a few decades ago and has since grown at an incredible pace. They are the highly prized apex of a global aquaculture industry that is providing increasing amounts of the protein on our plates.
Because their product is high-end, and because they also tend to be in beautiful and remote places, salmon farms attract plenty of critics. They have also had their environmental challenges, particularly in the past when the industry was young. And yet, we have 7.5 billion people to feed, and more on the way. Although we don’t go out and hunt wild cows for the beef industry we are currently doing the equivalent with seafood, and denuding the oceans in the process. Sustainable wild catch will be part of the answer, but it’s nowhere near enough. So we will need to farm the oceans. The World Resources Institute estimates that aquaculture production will have to double at least, by 2050, if we are to meet the world’s needs for protein. “The future of seafood in the world has to be aquaculture,” says Jason Clay, Senior Vice President in charge of markets at the WWF. “But it has to be done better.”
Enter the Global Salmon Initiative, a collaboration of companies from around the world that was created in 2012, and whose members produce more than half of all farmed salmon. Their stated aim is for the farms of all their members to achieve a “gold standard” certification for sustainability—one that’s so stringent that it is endorsed by the WWF. The idea is to improve the sustainability of farmed salmon across the entire sector, and hence to earn the social license to grow. This, they believe, will allow them to play a greater role in satisfying the world’s increasing appetite for protein—to the benefit of all players.
Avrim Lazar, who initially brought the group together and now heads its secretariat, has plenty of experience in helping other industries improve their sustainability. He was previously Canadian policy lead for the Kyoto climate agreement, and as CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada successfully brokered a deal between its members and a host of environmental groups including Greenpeace. He says that, in his experience, the real challenge is to get change at both speed and scale. And for that, he says, the companies involved have to do three important things: set ambitious goals that can be measured; be radically transparent about their practices; and share solutions very widely among themselves so that their collective progress accelerates. That’s what the GSI is now trying to do.
Like the relatively young salmon farming industry, the GSI has had its difficulties, but is also beginning to have some marked successes. I’ve been working with the group over the past few months, and I’m especially interested in the endeavour not just for what it means for the farmed salmon industry, but also for what other sectors might learn from their experience. Many large companies are beginning to realise that it’s not enough for them to make their own practices sustainable; they also need to bring the rest of their sector with them. But collaboration is hard. And the lessons that the GSI has been learning, as well as potentially transforming farmed salmon, might well start to make even wider waves in the rest of the world.
“The biggest impact of the GSI is going to be on the rest of the food industry,” says Clay. “This is an example of how a few CEOs and their companies can change an entire sector, in a very short amount of time.”