After prominent food safety scandals involving everything from “gutter oil” and contaminated milk powder to shellfish poisoning, it’s only natural for Chinese consumers to want to know more about how their food gets made. Yet it’s important to remember that guaranteeing food quality and safety will require more than just reforming and regulating the production process. After all, healthy food can only come from healthy ecosystems.
Take seafood, for example. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of seafood products. But the more polluted the water, the more polluted — and potentially toxic — the fish. A string of paralytic shellfish poisoning cases in the northern provinces of Hebei and Liaoning earlier this year — the result of toxic algae in “red tide” algae blooms — highlights the importance of a healthy ecosystem for food safety.
Growing up in the coastal city of Qingdao, the ocean and its produce were always a part of my life. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve trips to the seafood market, and I’ve spent almost 20 years working as an environmental advocate on issues related to ocean conservation and sustainable fishing practices. In that time, I’ve watched as China’s fishing industry has stressed the country’s marine ecosystems to their breaking point. And I’ve learned that to fix these problems, it’s not enough to just engage government, industry, and civic stakeholders. We must impress the importance of protecting and sustaining marine life on consumers as well.
With that in mind, in 2017, I joined with a group of like-minded individuals and founded the Qingdao Marine Conservation Society. Together we launched a public education project, the China Seafood Sustainability Assessment Program (CSSA), to produce engaging scientific guides to sustainable seafood for Chinese consumers.
The fish on our dinner tables comes from one of two sources: wild fishing or aquaculture. But wild fish stocks are facing exhaustion. Over 90% of the world’s sea life is currently overfished or being fished to maximum sustainable capacity, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile, in China, inadequate regulation of the aquaculture industry has devastated rivers, lakes, marshes, and oceans across the country; polluted the water supply; and endangered consumers’ health through the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides.
These issues are not confined to one country. In an attempt to get the fishing industry to change its practices, the World Wide Fund for Nature joined with Unilever to found the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 1997. Three years later, MSC began marking food products that met its standards for eco-friendliness, sustainability, and social responsibility with blue labels. Similar programs, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s own standards and Seafood Watch’s seafood buying guides, later followed.
The core idea of these programs is that the best way to put pressure on producers and processors is to educate consumers, and through them influence retailers’ purchasing strategies.
At CSSA, we want to localize this approach for domestic audiences. Like Seafood Watch, we publish recommendations and full assessment reports via popular social media platforms. To guide consumers, we put seafood products into three categories: recommending those which are sustainable and eco-friendly, cautioning consumers to consume less of those produced in environmentally harmful ways, and warning shoppers to stay away from protected or endangered species.
In doing so, we take China’s unique social-cultural environment and consumption habits into account. For example, we encourage fishers to catch — and consumers to eat — more wild red swamp crayfish, a highly invasive species that threatens natural wetlands. We also tell shoppers that, although it may be a popular dish, it takes 7 to 8 kilograms of juvenile fish to produce a single yellow croaker weighing just 1 kilogram. And we explain that the European, American, and Japanese eels advertised in Chinese stores as “farmed” are sourced from the wild and that they are all categorized as “endangered” or “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Some have questioned whether our methods can really work in a country like China. In the past, I tried persuading sponsors to make consumer guides for the Chinese market. But I was always told that China is too big, and that consumer education projects are not cost effective. Instead, they preferred to focus their efforts on influencing supermarkets’ purchasing habits.
Others argue that Chinese seafood consumers, especially in the older generation, only care about price and freshness: They won’t read our reports, and they don’t care about sustainability.
But I think now is the time for China to develop a world-class seafood sustainability rating program. First, without popular support, any sustainable seafood movement will be dead in the water. If Chinese consumers do not understand the importance of buying eco-friendly, socially responsible fish products, then retailers will not be motivated to change their habits. Often, even government decision-makers and green-minded business leaders overlook the ecological and social problems caused by fisheries and aquaculture. Public education on seafood sustainability can help generate bottom-up pressure for change.
Second, although the number of consumers we can influence is currently quite small, I believe that China’s increasingly young and educated consumer force is hungry for reliable, fact-based information on sustainable foods.
I know that it will be hard for us to influence those shoppers whose consumption habits are already set in stone, but there are millions of Chinese who are willing to learn more about sustainable seafood and who want to become responsible consumers. They are our best hope for the future.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Workers sort fish in Wanning, Hainan province, April 26, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)