Fish farming and food colonialism
The gender dimensions of the Norwegian salmon industry
Our for-real last SEA piece is a guest post by Feedback Global, a UK- and Europe-based environmental campaign group working for food that is good for the planet and its people. Last week, Feedback published Blue Empire: How the Norwegian salmon industry extracts nutrition and undermines livelihoods in West Africa, a new report on the geopolitical dynamics and unequal harms of industrial aquaculture.
It was picked up in a major investigation by the Financial Times (“The hidden cost of your supermarket salmon”) and by Norwegian business daily Dagens Næringsliv (“Europeisk miljøorganisasjon slakter norsk oppdrett: – Matkolonialisme”). And it immediately caught our eye due to the links it makes between food colonialism — the transfer of food and nutrients from so-called Global South countries to Global North countries, or from food insecure to food secure countries — and women’s livelihoods in West Africa. In this summary piece, campaigner Amelia Cookson breaks down the gender dimensions of siphoning fish from the Eastern Central Atlantic to feed farmed salmon in the North and Norwegian seas.
By Amelia Cookson at Feedback Global
For many people a trip to the supermarket can become a maze of sustainability and ethical considerations: carbon footprints, animal welfare, food miles, human rights, ultra processed food, and packaging. The list goes on. But one area that tends to swim under the radar is farmed fish.
More than half of the seafood we eat globally is farmed. As the world’s fastest-growing food-production sector, farmed seafood will account for 60% of global fish consumption within the next 10 years. It is often presented as a sustainable source of protein and a solution to relieving the burden on ocean life. But do these claims really stand up?
Feedback has spent the best part of a decade examining the impacts of industrial aquaculture, focusing in particular on the salmon farming industry’s voracious appetite for wild-caught fish, which is driving a damaging “food-feed competition”. It’s a little-known fact that farmed fish such as salmon consume millions of tonnes of wild-caught fish in their feed, in the form of fishmeal and fish oil (FMFO).
Each year, around one-fifth of the world’s annual marine catch is used to make FMFO. As industrial aquaculture expands, and demand for wild fish to feed farmed fish rises, companies are keen to secure access to the highly nutritious fish used to make FMFO, the vast majority of which are sourced from the Global South. This production model creates a problem: fish that are or could be a vital source of food and income for coastal communities are instead being used to feed the fish consumed by high-income consumers in the Global North.
Norway is the world’s biggest salmon farming country, with Norwegian companies occupying eleven out of the top 20 slots in the list of global producers of farmed salmon. Our latest report, Blue Empire: How the Norwegian salmon industry extracts nutrition and undermine livelihoods in West Africa, uncovers how, beneath Norway’s promises of a “blue revolution” through sustainable aquaculture lies instead a “blue empire”, whose industrialized and extractive practices represent a new type of food colonialism. These dynamics are harming West African communities by fuelling hunger and unemployment whilst entrenching the existing power imbalance between richer and more economically vulnerable countries. In many respects, it is women, who have traditionally played a central role in fish processing and selling throughout the region, who bear the brunt of the damage.
Norway’s farmed salmon industry harms women’s health
Industrial aquaculture is gobbling up valuable micronutrients in a region where millions of women suffer from anaemia, and hunger is on the rise. In Blue Empire, we calculate that in 2020, nearly 2 million tonnes of wild fish from Western Africa were required to produce the fish oil supplied to the Norwegian farmed salmon industry. This is equivalent to a staggering 2.5% of global marine fisheries catch — just to supply fish oil to Norwegian salmon farming.
The small fish targeted by the FMFO industry contain key nutrients including iron, zinc, and calcium. These nutrients are critical for children’s cognitive development and for women’s health in West Africa, where more than half of the female population suffer from anaemia.
The extraction of small fish is happening whilst hunger is rising across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). New research shows that of eight global regions, SSA is the one most severely impacted by lack of micronutrient availability. This relates to fishing as until now, small fish have been an important component of people’s diets. In 2020, the number of undernourished people in the region rose to 274 million, with 84% of people unable to afford a healthy diet. Fish consumption in Senegal alone declined by 50% in the 10 years between 2009-2018, driven by a reduction in the availability of small pelagic1 fish.
Norway’s farmed salmon industry harms women’s livelihoods
In West Africa, it is mainly women who process and sell fish they source from nearby fish landings. They dry, salt, ferment, and smoke fish, then store and sell them for local consumption. This craft is handed down from mother to daughter across generations and is a source of pride.
In recent decades, however, increasing scarcity of fish stocks has driven more and more women out of business as they are unable compete with ever increasing prices per crate of fish. The Financial Times quoted Fatou Thoiye, who lives in a Senegalese fishing town:
“A case of yaboi [round sardinella] used to cost 3,000 francs [5 euros], now it costs 50,000”.
To survive, Senegalese women processors came together in so-called economic interest groups (“groupements d’intéret économique”, or GIE) to ensure purchasing strength through numbers. But in recent years, more and more GIEs have lost a substantial amount of their members who, despite mobilizing, could no longer make a living through fish processing and sales.
To counteract this problem, processors and fishmongers have been calling for a recognition of their profession which would grant them a better place in decision-making and policy-making processes to defend themselves against powerful fishing and FMFO industries. However, their call has yet to be acted upon despite the economic, social and cultural significance of their work. Ultimately Norway’s and other countries’ appetite for FMFO is creating relentless pressure on West African fisheries, making it increasingly challenging for people in West Africa to defend their livelihoods.
Norway’s international development goals are at odds with its industrial strategy
In 2022, the Norwegian government published Norway’s strategy for promoting food security in development policy, which has a strong focus on promoting food security in Africa as well as the empowerment of women. In the foreword, Anne Beathe Kristiansen Tvinnereim, Minister of International Development, noted that “an overall objective of the Government’s development policy is to fight hunger and increase global food security.” The strategy identified malnutrition and undernutrition as critical global issues, highlighting the importance of seafood as a source of micronutrients. To add to this, it underlines the key role women play within the industry: “Of those employed globally in fishing and aquaculture, 21% are women, a proportion that rises to more than 50% when the rest of the value chain is included.” In light of this, the government of Norway pledged to invest in targeted measures that strengthen women’s position as food producers.
However, our findings point to a shocking disconnect between the Norwegian government’s development policy and its industrial strategy, under which salmon farming is set to expand massively by 2050. This blatant gap between what the government is saying, as opposed to doing, with regards to food security in Africa is as alarming as it is ironic.
What are we calling for at Feedback?
In light of our findings, we’re calling on Norwegian decision-makers to stop further growth in salmon farming, mandate genuine transparency throughout the supply chain, and ensure that Norwegian companies’ activities and feed sourcing practices do not run counter to its own development policy.
How can you get involved?
Pelagic fish are forage fish such as anchoveta, mackerel, herring, whiting and sardines that live in the pelagic zone (i.e., not close to the bottom or near the shore) of oceans or lakes. They play a vital role in ecosystems as prey of larger ocean animals. Some species of krill and squid are also considered forage fish because many animals rely on them as a food source.