Want to save the mangroves? Eat organic shrimp

Organic shrimp: financially lucrative and beneficial for the environment. Photo credit: Phong Quach/Flickr.

Organic shrimp: financially lucrative and beneficial for the environment. Photo credit: Phong Quach/Flickr.

Many consumers around the world are choosing to pay more for certified organic products. The organic foods market is booming internationally. In the United States, for example, growth of this market is projected to remain around 9 percent or higher.

There are many purported benefits to buying and eating organic foods — it’s healthier, better for the environment, and encourages good agriculture practices. But did you know that this trend could actually help to preserve a complex ecosystem like a mangrove forest?

About 50 percent of Vietnam’s mangrove trees can be found in the coastal region of Ca Mau province. Shrimp farming is also a huge industry in the area, contributing about a quarter of Vietnam’s total shrimp production, an industry that earned the country over $USD 2 billion in 2013.

Within this area, Ngoc Hien district, which has 25 percent of all of the mangroves in Vietnam, has been specifically targeted for an organic revolution. The shrimp farms in Ngoc Hien are operated as organic mangrove poly-cultures, which support shrimp, crabs, fish, oysters, and other aquatic life.

This unique form of shrimp production may have lower yields than industrial shrimp farms, but the input costs are very low, as the farms do not have to use any manmade chemicals, feed, or antibiotics. The farms are a completely natural system, which results in good water quality and low disease transmission. If you risk-adjust the net income generated, these farms are very profitable, even compared to industrial shrimp farms, making them economically viable.

Currently, 740 shrimp farmers have a deal with Minh Phu, the world’s second largest seafood processor by shrimp export value, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) researcher Jake Brunner. Minh Phu offers a 10 percent price premium and will buy all certified organic shrimp of any size from the farmers, making it both secure and lucrative to shrimp-farm organically.

Under this system, the farmers not only benefit financially, but also have greater food security as they can incorporate the other aquatic life from their farms into their diet. There are environmental benefits, too: the mangroves help maintain sediment levels, cutting down on coastal erosion, and carbon is stored in this sediment, leading to lower CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the dynamic nature of the mangrove forests offsets the negative effects of sea-level rise. All of this occurs without adding any chemicals or pollutants to the water and soil.

Mangrove ecosystems are being preserved with an organic shrimp farm revolution. Photo credit: CIFOR.

Brunner presented the organic shrimp-farming program during a session on managing mangroves for climate change mitigation at the Center for International Forestry Research’s (CIFOR) Forests Asia Summit. He characterizes the program as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), because the private sector is paying farmers to produce shrimp in a way that preserves the mangrove ecosystem.

Vietnam is a leader in PES in Southeast Asia, although most programs are terrestrial instead of aquatic. Typically, PES in Vietnam centers on hydropower, where downstream communities and dam companies pay upstream communities to maintain forests. These upstream forests provide many services, including reducing sedimentation that can decrease the effectiveness of hydropower dams.

However, there have traditionally been problems with PES schemes. Private companies are not always willing to pay, and compliance is low. In addition, there have been issues with identifying the kinds of forests that actually provide useful ecosystem services. In some cases, individuals have been paid for having rubber plantations, which actually contribute to sedimentation instead of mitigating it. More recently, Chinese interest in cassava production for biofuels has created incentives for people to convert forestland into cropland, threatening the sustainability of the PES system.

Brunner feels that the PES program in Ca Mau is without these pitfalls. The company is willing to pay. Monitoring and evaluation is a necessary part of being certified organic, so compliance is also high. In addition, if one farmer is not following the regulations, then all of the farmers fail, creating peer pressure to operate organically. Finally, the program has some permanence, as the focus is on improving livelihoods, rather than preserving trees. While the starting costs to get certified and trained may be somewhat high, the incremental costs are modest, giving the farmers good incentives to maintain organic practices.

Brunner says that organic certification is a way to transform the economy of shrimp farming to make mangrove preservation profitable. The farmers are able to add value to each unit of shrimp, so that they don’t need to undercut competitors and they sell more for less. “This is the future for Vietnam,” says Brunner. “By ‘greening’ their supply chains, producers can extract more value from what they produce.”

Of course, there are still barriers. Intensive farming remains lucrative as a large shrimp farm can afford to lose a whole crop and still bounce back — a luxury the organic farmers don’t have. Current legislation and law enforcement do not hold these companies accountable for some of the environmental degradation they cause, allowing them to operate in unsustainable ways. Therefore, government has a large role to play in encouraging good practice and changing incentives.

However, the private sector is really what is driving the expansion, not only of this program, but also of similar programs around the world. Minh Phu providing farmers with a purchase guarantee is critical. But without consumer demand, there is no market. Without a market, therefore, there is very little incentive for farmers to maintain mangrove forests.

So next time you buy shrimp, why not buy organic?

Mia Signs is a communications fellow with the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

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