Selling seafood sustainability

A keynote speaker at the NACUFS National Conference earlier this month, Chef Barton Seaver took the audience on a journey to explore what it means to serve “sustainable” seafood.

According to Chef Barton Seaver, it’s not the fish that stink, it’s the way we think about them.

A keynote speaker at the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) National Conference earlier this month, Seaver, the director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s School of Public Health, took the audience of higher education foodservice directors and managers, chefs and administrators on a journey, exploring what it means to serve “sustainable” seafood. Sharing the knowledge he gained while exploring the global seafood system during his Fellowship with the Explorer Program at the National Geographic Society, Seaver suggested that a shift in thinking and in narrative can open the door to a new world of seafood, one that doesn’t compromise the fragile ecosystems of our lakes and oceans.

We fail to see sustainability for its larger purpose, Seaver said. While programs to “reduce and reuse” and “go organic” abound, our application of these programs is flawed. “We forget to set fundamental goals and measure actions against the initial purpose—what are we trying to sustain?” he observes. “We’ve been so busy reducing and reusing that we forgot to refuse.”

But refusing we are when it comes to seafood. Today, 95% of the seafood we consume comes from just 10 species, Seaver shared, though the diversity of ocean life is incalculable and several other species are caught—called by-catch—while in pursuit of the targeted 10, causing an estimated 40 million metric tons of fish to be thrown away each year. “We’ve created an irrational economy,” Seaver said. “Our acute desire for seafood has created an economy based on demand, not supply. The solution is to eat what we find. We need to create a system that allows for proper valuation of that which the ocean can sustainably give us.”

Adding by-catch to menus can easily be done, Seaver explained, so long as the right story is being told. Like reducing and recycling, if the big picture story isn’t realized, sustainability is just a word or a certification without impact or meaning. “We are chefs, we are directors, we are managers, we are creative people,” Seaver explained. “Sustainability must be your story that reflects and communicates your values; it must be backed by reliable science and certification—but used in combination, not alone.”

So often, chefs and managers rely on the products that they know they can procure without issue, distilling the notion of sustainability to a shopping list.  “A key opportunity to owning sustainability narratives is to shift from a procurement idea to a culinary idea,” Seaver said.

First, challenge your suppliers to look beyond the “green list” for items that, though high quality, are undervalued. Then tell the story of the item to sell sustainability—don’t just tell your customers what the item is, use positive language and show them what it is, where it came from and why you chose that product over others. “Demonstrate your passion, show what you care about to get others to care,” Seaver said. “It doesn’t require any extra training, it’s pretty normal. Diversify your menu to generate curiosity and sustain your interest in your job and those that work with you.”

At the close of his presentation, Seaver observed that we tend to focus on the negative notion that the environment has been detrimentally impacted because of humans. But, he suggested, we need to change this thinking and instead, use the passion, knowledge and influence we have to foster a community of learning to make the world better because we were here. “Food is the most important subject that students will learn, and you are their teachers,” he concluded.

Seafood facts

  • The ocean is the sole source of protein for more than 2 billion people on the planet
  • One in eight people are directly supported by marine economies
  • Seafood is the second most globally traded item
  • 85% of the world’s fisheries are exploited to full capacity or have been depleted
  • The demand for seafood is going to triple by 2525