Improving Fish Welfare Through Voluntary Certification
Most of the world’s aquaculture production comes from Asia, with China and Thailand being important regional players. As the industry continues to expand, the treatment of farmed aquatic animals in these countries is an important issue for animal advocates to focus on. This literature review from Rethink Priorities explores whether international “voluntary certification schemes” (VCSs) can improve animal welfare in the Chinese and Thai aquaculture sectors.
In many industries, producers seek certifications from VCSs to communicate that their products meet certain standards of safety, quality, sustainability, or labor. To become certified, a producer must pass an initial assessment and inspection to verify that it complies with the VCS’s standards. After certification, the producer must then pass periodic reinspections and pay a licensing fee to use the VCS logo on its products. The author of this review points out that the certification process, particularly the inspections, is usually costly for producers.
Aquaculture farms in China and Thailand have two options for certification: international VCSs that are usually tied to non-profits or industry groups, and domestic VCSs, including China Good Agricultural Practices (ChinaGAP) and Thai Good Agricultural Practices (ThaiGAP). National schemes are managed by the Chinese and Thai governments. Despite the recent increase in international VCSs in the aquaculture sector, few address aquatic animal welfare. Likewise, ChinaGAP and ThaiGAP have no animal welfare standards.
In the author’s view, international VCSs can potentially improve conditions for farmed aquatic animals by giving producers an economic incentive to comply with higher welfare standards. Previous research suggests that certified goods tend to be more attractive to international importers and distributors, which may allow producers to access global supply chains and sell more products. The author claims that certified goods are typically also sold at higher prices, particularly in wealthy, welfare-conscious markets of Europe and North America. Despite these factors, few farms in China and Thailand are certified by international VCSs.
The author goes on to explore some of the barriers of participating in a VCS from the perspective of Chinese and Thai aquaculture producers. They claim that certification rates are low because most of the aquaculture farms in these countries are small to medium-scale. This makes certification prohibitively expensive, or the cost outweighs the potential economic benefits. For example, smaller farms may lack the ability to pay for improved facilities or production practices to meet a VCS’s standards. Even if these farms could get certified, the author believes they have little incentive to do so. They may face challenges breaking into new markets, or they could get crowded out from larger, more prominent European and North American aquaculture brands. What’s more, there may be a general lack of awareness of VCSs among the smaller producers of Thailand and China.
Large-scale farms with greater access to capital and global markets are more likely to be certified by an international VCS, the author claims. However, many large-scale farms choose to get certified by ChinaGAP or ThaiGAP because, from the author’s perspective, the domestic VCSs are less expensive, don’t require welfare improvements, and offer many of the same economic benefits.
The author speculates about whether Chinese and Thai certification rates would increase if more consumers demanded higher welfare standards. In this scenario, they believe that many large-scale farms would improve welfare practices and get certified in order to enter welfare-conscious markets. Higher welfare standards mean higher production costs, which could force many small- and medium-sized farms out of business. The author also believes that some of the farms with the worst welfare records could remain in business because they also have the lowest production costs. These farms, hypothetically, would continue to supply cost-conscious local consumers.
Although much of the review relies on speculation, the author makes a thoughtful case that international VCSs by themselves are not effective tools to improve animal welfare in Chinese and Thai aquaculture. Unless consumer demand for higher welfare standards increases, large-scale farms are unlikely to improve practices when domestic VCSs already give them access to global markets. This situation may change if countries that import Chinese and Thai aquatic animal products require improved welfare through trade standards or bans. Campaigning for these changes is one way for animal advocates to get involved in this issue.
Another potential advocacy tactic is campaigning to introduce welfare standards into Chinese and Thai national VCSs. To offset the high costs to small and medium farms, governments could offer guaranteed price increases for aquatic animal products that meet certain welfare standards (although how consumers would respond to price changes remains uncertain). Ultimately, from an effective advocacy standpoint, the author remains undecided about whether this is the most promising route to advocate for animals.