Organic aquaculture: the future of expanding niche markets

There is unprecedented growth in the demand for organic food and new areas of organic food production, such as fish, are proving increasingly popular. In reference to the Codex Alimentarius, organic aquaculture refers to the production processes and practices of ecological production management systems that promote and enhance biodiversity, biological cycles and [pond bottom] biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on holistic management practices that restore, maintain and enhance species diversity and ecological harmony. More generally, the primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimise the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people. However, details are often unclear to the consumer.

Today, several specific and relatively precise standards of organic aquaculture production (hatchery, feed, grow-out) and processing exist which aim at achieving optimal agro-ecosystems which are socially, ecologically and economically sustainable. Impartial organisations take part in the inspection and certification process to ensure that those production and processing standards are adhered to.

The total global production of organic aquaculture production increased by 950 percent from 5,000 tonnes/year in 2000 to 53,500 tonnes per year in 2009, produced by 240 certified organic aquaculture operations in 29 different countries. In China alone, 72 operations have received organic aquaculture certification. Based on data from 2008, the majority (25,000 tonnes/year) of organic aquaculture production is farmed in Europe, followed by Asia (19,000 tonnes/year) and Latin America (7,000 tonnes/year). By individual countries, China leads with 15,300 tonnes/year followed by the United Kingdom (9,900 tonnes/year) and Ecuador (5,800 tonnes/year).

The total market value was estimated at €230 million in 2009 (€1 = US$1.217 approximately). The major markets for organic aquaculture products are European countries, led by Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Switzerland. Here features of an evolving market are observed, such as increasing sales volumes, growing competition in increasing numbers of new outlets and market channels, and increasing pressure to decrease prices. United States of America considered to have a large potential once regulations are passed by the US Department of Agriculture. Developing countries are showing gradual expansion of organic aquaculture markets, however these are characterised by high prices, low sales volumes, little or almost no competition and the need to invest in marketing and create consumer awareness of organic aquaculture products.

The number of species from organic aquaculture has increased from four species in 2000 to around 30 species in 2009, including at least 15 fish species, six crustacean species, at least one mollusc species, one holothurian, one turtle, and at least four species of microalgae. For some species of which conventional (i.e. non-organically certified) products are sold in large volumes, such as Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and striped catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus), supply growth of organically produced products has reportedly not been keeping up with demand growth. By species, salmon had the highest production of 16,000 tonnes/year in 2008, followed by "shrimp" (combining Litopenaeus vannamei and Penaeus monodon) with 8,800 tonnes/year and common carp with 7,200 tonnes/year.

Around 80 different organic aquaculture standards exist, both public as well as private, of which those with the greatest number of certified farms are Naturland, AB France and Bio Suisse. Due to frequent compatibility among labels, farms may obtain certification according to more than one label, in order to access a greater variety of markets. However, the greater majority are certified according to one label only. As of 1 July 2010 the new EU organic aquaculture implementing rules will be applicable. These constitute a consensus “minimum” standard and other existing standards are stricter in their requirements. One of the issues of debate is there is no limit to the percentage of fishmeal in feeds for coldwater species such as trout, Atlantic salmon and cod, whereas shrimp and pangasius have a permissible fishmeal limit of 10 percent in their organic feeds.

The most salient issue in organic aquaculture production is the existing bottleneck in supply of certified organic feed. Aside from the requirements for net cage culture, farmers growing products in ponds tend to seek increased production through modest additional feeding as such a semi-intensive mode provides better returns and enables to meet growing market demands. Global demand for organic aquaculture feed by far outstrips supply, and ingredients are sourced on the global market, whereas organic principles aim at reducing environmental costs of long-distance shipment. Additionally this adds considerably to the costs of production and the quality of the feed can potentially suffer due to transit times and transport conditions en route (e.g. by moulds that produce aflatoxins). However, in a country with only one or a few organic aquaculture farms the initial establishment of the first local organic aquaculture feed production facility is a tedious process as existing feed mill operators hesitate the part-time production of relatively low amounts of feed due to the stringent requirements in preparing machines between runs of organic and non-organic feed to avoid contamination. Additionally, the sourcing of ingredients at national or local level which satisfy requirements of organic labels can pose serious obstacles for start-ups, notably in developing countries.

The recently completed project financed by the Common Fund for Commodities involved organic farms in Thailand (shrimp), Myanmar (shrimp) and Malaysia (tilapia and shrimp). In Thailand the project was successful in obtaining organic certification for the involved stakeholders and in establishing contacts with buyers in international markets. In Malaysia and Myanmar good potential was identified for the relevant parties. The main obstacle encountered was the difficulty in obtaining organic feed at a reasonable cost. On the plus side, domestic and regional demand for organic aquaculture products was much stronger than anticipated.

Organic aquaculture and markets have met the expectations and commitments expressed in The Bangkok Declaration of 2000, including: improved environmental sustainability, strengthening of institutional support to implement transparent and enforceable policy and regulatory frameworks, application of rules and procedures, application of innovations in aquaculture, better management of aquatic animal health; improved nutrition in aquaculture, improved food quality and safety, and the promotion of market development and trade.

In future, the largest increases in production volume are projected for two species: Atlantic salmon and "shrimp". The global market value of organic aquaculture is expected to increase by 40 to 60 percent over the three years between 2009 and 2012 surpassing a total value of €500 million in 2011. However, in the near future, better strategies will have to be developed to avoid the bottleneck of insufficient organic aquaculture feed supply, notably in the budding organic aquaculture sector in developing countries. Benchmarking of existing labels and standards and cross-accreditation will enable farms to access additional market channels without the need for new and costly certification procedures. Establishing such equivalency as well as harmonisation is necessary, particularly for the increasing number of national organic aquaculture labels. Although considerable scope exists for development of organic agriculture markets in developing countries due to increasing numbers of middle class consumers, experience has shown that the initial growth and expansion is in other organic food categories, such as grains, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, and only in a secondary phase in meats and aquatic products. Raising consumer awareness and establishing trust can accelerate this process.


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Global Conference on Aquaculture 2010

The conference was organised by FAO, the Thai Department of Fisheries and NACA and held in the Mövenpick Resort and Spa, Phuket, Thailand, 22-25 September. The conference was the third in a series of aquaculture development conferences, following on from the Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium held in Bangkok 2000, and the FAO Technical Conference on Aquaculture, held in Kyoto 1976.