Sustainable Aquaculture in North Carolina and China

Fish Farms in China

As the world’s population grows, there are greater demands placed on the natural environment to feed people – people whose dietary expectations have changed with a greater awareness of how other people live. With this increase in the consumption of animal protein, aquaculture has been portrayed as the latest technological panacea to save the environment, promote economic development (Sachs 2007), and strengthen food security (Godfray 2010). There is much to recommend sustainable aquaculture, especially when compared to other animal protein sources. Fish in general have a higher feed conversion ratio than beef, pork, or poultry (Steinfeld 2006). Aquaculture has lower environmental costs in terms of land use and degradation, pollutant emissions, or fresh water and energy consumption (Hall 2011). Farmed fish are also the fastest growing agricultural sector (between 1970 and 2008), outpacing population growth (FAO 2008:6), with the highest value in the global food trade. In 2008, aquaculture accounted for 45.7% of the global fish production for human consumption, with an estimated value of US$ 98.4 billion (FAO 2010: 18). The bulk of aquaculture production took place in developing countries, with China by far the largest producer (62.3%) of farmed fish.
This growth in aquaculture, however, has been considered by many (Goldburg, Elliot, and Naylor 2001; Pauly 2002) to not be sustainable: economic scale within an ecological system, equitable distribution of resources, and efficient allocation that accounts for natural capital (Costanza and Patten 1995:194). This long-term, ethnographic study will explore the social, economic, and environmental challenges faced by fish farmers in the Yangtze River Delta to better understand how sustainable aquaculture can be promoted among both small and medium scale producers. In a previous study, I found particular conditions that made aquaculture in North Carolina sustainable: an emphasis on freshwater fish, the use of closed recirculating systems, the wider context of information-based environmental governance in the US, and the creation of cooperatives and other socioeconomic organizations that helped farmers employ sustainable practices (Lozada 2012). This study will determine what aspects of this model can encourage Chinese fish farmers to use more sustainable practices.
This research contributes directly to two fields: food studies in China and sustainability. In terms of food studies, aquaculture is an important part of China’s food system, a system that has been under significant pressure and scrutiny (Zhang 2014). In China, while annual per capita meat consumption increased about 43% from 1981 to 2004, fish products increased 72% (Dong & Fuller, 2010). Yet food security and safety continues to be a significant source of social unrest, as Yan (2012) concludes in his examination of food tampering and social insecurity. Klein (2013) finds that Chinese consumers, producers, and sellers have forged new connections of trust driven by particularistic connections.
In terms of sustainability, this research will focus on social and cultural initiatives that can supplement both government and market approaches. Subasinghe (2009) assert that what is most needed to make aquaculture sustainable is better management of production by the producers themselves through a combination of good governance and self-regulation – a combination best achieved by expanding the flow of information through social networks of producer associations, consumers and other social groups (see also Pullin 2007). Smith (2010) further argue that aquaculture’s tight coupling to ecosystems and dependence on common-pool resources make government policies insufficient in creating incentives for sustainable aquaculture, but there are possibilities in initiatives such as certification and direct sourcing. While there is skepticism among my Chinese colleagues for this approach, they have expressed a willingness to try to implement such an approach.
Preliminary fieldwork conducted in the summers of 2013 and 2014 suggest that Chinese fish farmers do not face the same challenges as the small-scale fish farmers in North Carolina that I studied earlier. Of particular note, aquaculture cooperatives in China do not have the same strengths for promoting sustainability that American ones have (especially market-based tools such as shared purchases of capital-intensive equipment and group certification). Chinese cooperatives do have other features (closer connections to policy makers and enforcers) that may stimulate more widespread sustainable practices. As a result, this study will focus on the connections between local state agencies, cooperatives, producers and consumers. Due to the high visibility in China of food scandals such as the 2008 tainted milk issue, traceability has become an important aspect of food safety in the distribution chain. In China, however, there are inherent problems of trust in technological solutions, making particularistic social networks an important part of food safety strategies. Ethnographic documentation of the commodity chain from producers to consumers may reveal different ways in which trust in ethical and sustainable food producers can be expanded.