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The truth behind 'sustainably fished' and 'organic' labels

Organic veggies, certified sustainable seafood and farm-to-table dining are all the green rage in Singapore – but are they as earth-friendly as they are cracked up to be? The new series Coming Clean About Green investigates.

02:58 Min
‘Organic’ and ‘sustainably sourced’, the food label states - but is it really? The programme Coming Clean About Green investigates a grey side to the booming business in eco-foods.

SINGAPORE & THAILAND: It is in demand every Chinese New Year and is believed to bring good luck. But the red grouper is also overexploited or from unsustainable sources, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

It is among the three in four popular seafood species consumed here that WWF Singapore considers overfished or not well-managed, a list that includes swordtip squid and stingray.

In a country where people love to eat seafood – on average, 21kg per person in a year, compared to the global average of 20kg – one solution to the depletion of fish stocks is to eat responsibly.

READ & WATCH: Saving our ocean’s fish stocks, one plate of nasi lemak at a time

To this end, a growing number of businesses, like Marina Bay Sands, are starting to use more certified sustainable products in their kitchens. But are such measures really benefiting the environment?

In January, nearly 70 organisations and individuals criticised the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the dominant seafood sustainability certifier, for failing to uphold standards to reduce overfishing.

In a joint letter, they said “an increasing number of controversial fisheries” had been certified despite destroying the environment and having unsustainable practices.

At a time when efforts like eco-dining – eating food harvested in a responsible way – ditching plastic straws and switching to electric cars are growing trends, a new Channel NewsAsia series is questioning things that green advocates might take for granted.

Coming Clean About Green looks at how impactful some of these green solutions, from cycling to clean coal, really are. And in the case of eating sustainably, it will take much more than that to make a world of difference. (Watch the episode here.)


When it comes to sustainable seafood labels, there are few options. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is one, and the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practice is another.

As for the MSC, its Asia-Pacific director Patrick Caleo disputed that his organisation is not doing enough. “If it’s MSC-certified, it’s sustainable,” he said.

Conservation groups would rather the bar be raised much higher, and the industry would rather see it lower.

“MSC’s bar is set at a very high level: 50 per cent of fisheries that initially go for a pre-assessment don’t go on to achieve MSC certification. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t set the bar too high," he added.

There are annual surveillance audits of fisheries, he said, and “every point in the supply chain has taken ownership” of products with the MSC label. “The wholesale processes, right back to the fishery, have a chain of custody in place.”

Still, seafood is a fast-moving industry. Things can go wrong, and one of the risks is mislabelling. In 2016, advocacy group Oceana reported that one in five seafood samples it tested worldwide was mislabelled.

In Singapore, this would constitute food fraud under the Wholesome Meat and Fish Act, punishable by a fine of up to S$50,000 and/or a maximum jail term of two years for a first conviction, said the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

But it still happens. When the CNA team sent eight samples of certified sustainable fish to a laboratory, the results showed that one product did not match its packaging label, which had stated Pacific cod.

The product labelled Pacific cod (above) was found to be Alaskan pollock, which is not on WWF's Singapore Seafood Guide's green list, although it is a fish of the cod family and its wild stock is certified sustainable by the MSC.

When the supplier and the MSC were alerted to this finding, they said they would investigate the matter.


Sustainable fish is not the only food that might not be what it seems. People may take a leap of faith when it comes to organic farm products too.

At eco-grocery chain Little Farms, its most popular products are organic. Head of operations Fred Moujalli noted, however, that “being organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pesticide-free”.

There are, for example, natural pesticides. But that is the shady side of the organic food industry because producers “may not be honest”, according to Thai-Pesticide Alert Network (Thai-Pan) adviser Kingkorn Narintarakul Na Ayutdhaya.

Ms Kingkorn Narintarakul Na Ayutdhaya.

“We can’t guarantee that they’d use only light pesticides. They might use dangerous ones,” said the activist.

Forty per cent of the world’s organic producers are in Asia. And in Thailand, the amount of organic farmland nearly doubled between 2009 and 2016, backed by government support and growing demand.

Thai-Pan’s tests in 2016, however, found that two in 10 samples of fruits and vegetables certified as organic by the Thai government contained chemical residues.

“We’d like to advise consumers not to believe or trust it (certification) 100 per cent,” said Ms Kingkorn.

One vegetable farm that uses organic fertilisers, and more workers than in conventional farms to get rid of pests and weeds, is Monkey Organic Farm in Chiang Mai. And owner Nives Pirarak bemoans the “fake” organic products of some farmers.

Mr Nives Pirarak.

“As you know, organic products are more expensive than general ones. They’d mix them up and label them all as organic,” he said. His farm took two years to be certified as organic, and he feels “cheated” by such mislabelling.

I’ve tried very hard, made a lot of effort and spent a lot of time and money.

So how does a grocer like Little Farms back its claim that its sells produce which is good for the environment?

“It’s trust and relationship … If you trust your supplier, and we know where it comes from, that’s enough for me to serve to my customers,” said Mr Moujalli, 43.

“If I can ring up the supplier and say, ‘you’re stating a 100 per cent organic ingredients – can you please send over your certs, and that’ll be fine’, the minute they start to hesitate, we know there’s something going on.”

Mr Fred Moujalli.


It is not just the organic movement that is gaining traction in Singapore. So too are farm-to-table restaurants, which are classified as those using fresh locally grown food.

One of them is Open Farm Community, in Dempsey. And head chef Oliver Truesdale-Jutras affirmed that the restaurant “tries to source locally as much as we can”. “We’re trying to shave food miles off our food,” he said.

“If you’re using organic produce in Singapore from the Netherlands, the miles you’re adding on, in terms of … how much energy gets used, pretty much equate to a standard product from nearby or even a very badly farmed product from nearby.

“We’re saving a lot of fuel for the world, I guess.”

The question of where your ingredients are from is a reminder of the environmental cost of transporting produce. But how much difference would a reduction in food miles make?

According to the study “Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States”, transport represents only 11 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food, based on an average supply chain of 6,760 kilometres.

The production phase contributed 83 per cent of the average household's carbon footprint for food consumption, with red meat being around 150 per cent more carbon-intensive than chicken or fish.

Hence the study’s authors, from Carnegie Mellon University, suggested that dietary shifts could be a more effective means of lowering one’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local”.

In Singapore, to help consumers when it comes to eating fish, WWF has a sustainable seafood guide, notwithstanding the arguments about certification. There is, however, another question here – about feasibility.

Fish on the WWF's red list of threatened ocean species

For example, cod from Japan and Hokkaido scallops are sustainable but expensive, as with a good number of the other recommended foods, like rock lobster and sea cucumber.

Food vendors may also have no idea whether their fish is sustainable and where it comes from, or even what is in a product such as fish balls.

Ultimately, consumers can still play a part in eco-dining, but it also takes healthy scepticism and a lot more work to make a real environmental impact.

The series Coming Clean About Green looks at the complex realities of green solutions being pursued across Asia. Watch this episode here.

Source: CNA/dp