With the U.N. saying there will be 9 billion people on the planet by mid-century, one big question comes to mind: How are we going to feed them?
One answer: Fish.
Fish are one of the most environmentally friendly sources of animal protein. But already, only half of the fish humans eat comes from oceans, lakes and rivers. The rest? Fish farms. Farms that are growing in number and in size.
While fish farming still is efficient in turning feed into protein, it’s hardly trouble-free. Today on our series, Food for 9 Billion, I traveled to Vietnam, where aquaculture farmers are searching for new ways to create a more sustainable fish farm for the future.
In the 1960’s Vietnam’s late communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, encouraged the rural poor to dig fishponds as a way to boost their nutrition. The small ponds were integrated into family farms where fish fed on agricultural waste until they became food themselves.
The farmers then drained the ponds and fertilized their fields with the sludge before starting the cycle all over again, never buying a single bag of feed or fertilizer.
Today’s model couldn’t be more different. Cut to the scene at feeding time at a catfish farm in the Mekong River Delta. Workers bang the floorboards on a raft and then pour 50-pound bags of commercial fish pellets — which consist mostly of imported soy meal — into the water. The surface of the pond explodes with fish so dense it looks like you can walk across them.
Fortunes are being made raising these native catfish, called pangasius, on an industrial scale. And entrepreneurs like fifty six year old Duong Ngoc Minh are the new tycoons.
“For me this is about legacy,” Mihn said. “And the legacy I want to leave for the future generations is the development of this aquaculture business.”
In a single decade, Minh has built an aquaculture empire. Today his pangasius farm, called Hung Vuong Corporation, is Vietnam’s largest, with nearly two square miles of ponds. Minh also owns his entire supply chain, from the feed mill all the way to processing and packaging. This year he expects to produce 200,000 tons of frozen fish fillets, most of which will be sold as catfish in Europe and the U.S.
But for Minh, that legacy he speaks of, is about more than just numbers. “I think in the future, farmed fish such as pangasius will take a special role in supplying food for the world, especially as wild fish continue to decline,” he said.
And he’s not the only one who thinks so. Jose Villalon, who heads the World Wildlife Fund’s aquaculture program, says pangasius may be the perfect factory fish.
It grows fast. It can breathe air through its mouth if things get too crowded. And, unlike carnivorous fish like salmon, it thrives on a mostly vegetarian diet.
“When you look at ponds like this and you see the production output of them and you see how the fish are feeding efficiently,” Villalon said. “This is going to be how the future will receive its marine protein.”
Intensive systems like this can feed a lot of people, but there’s also the potential for things to go terribly wrong. Rivers get polluted. Diseases run rampant. Forests and wetlands get bulldozed into new ponds. This is why Jose Villalon and WWF are here in Vietnam working with big producers like Minh. They hope to create a new model for industrial-scale fish farms that puts the planet on equal footing with profits.
“Right now we’re at this transition where aquaculture’s being produced in traditional ways and it’s not yet being asked to be responsible,” he said.
But Villalon says it will be as aquaculture is projected to double by the middle of the century. And for the WWF being responsible means following the environmental standard it helped create. It’s called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. And in order to become certified, pangasius farms have to do things like stock their ponds with fewer fish to reduce disease outbreaks, and treat wastewater in sedimentation ponds before dumping it back into the river.
But there are about half a dozen other certification schemes in Vietnam as well, all competing for the same business. And the jury is still out as to whether these voluntary standards will actually translate into real environmental gains.
“The standards are what I would call set without evidence,” said Roel Bosma, an aquaculture researcher with the Netherlands’ Wageningen University. He says the certification standards being touted by environmental groups set the bar way too low.
In a government lab outside of Ho Chi Minh City Bosma and his Vietnamese colleagues are searching for ways to make fishponds completely waste free. They’re experimenting with new feeds that make fish feces more solid so they can easily be removed, and the water reused.
“So this is how the sampling goes. You can smell it different huh? You don’t smell it when it’s around but when it’s concentrated you smell the difference,” Bosma said.
The fact that this fragrant brew gets dumped back into the Mekong River instead of being used as fertilizer for crops or as food for other fish drives Bosma crazy. He says it’s a basic lesson in efficiency even the original fish farmers understood.
“Farming systems in the past, they were mixed systems, where the residues, the waste of one animal or component of the system were reused by another component of the system,” he said.
Bosma says by treating the pond as a natural system rather than a factory, farmers can reduce both their waste and their need for imported, soy-based feed, which has an entire set of environmental implications of its own. But he says this ecological approach is also labor intensive, making the model much more suited to smaller farms. The problem is… only a few are left.
As recently as five years ago small-scale farmers produced the majority of the country’s pangasius. But today, after a wave of consolidation, they account for less than ten percent. A number that’s likely to fall even lower in the coming years.
Tran Van Tach has about five acres of pangasius ponds in a remote village near the Cambodian border, and he says this year’s harvest will be his last.
“I already discussed it with my wife to change the business,” Tach said. “Maybe after harvesting the fish this time we change everything back to rice. Maybe we’ll have just the rice field again.”
Tach stands to lose more than a quarter of a million dollars because of rising feed and labor costs. Like the industrial scale farm I visited earlier, Tach’s fish are also destined for foreign markets. But he says for him, the cost of complying with the new certification standards his buyers demand means the difference between a profit and going deep into the red.
“If I want to sell my fish I have to follow the international standard,” Tach said. “Even though as a small farmer I have a harder time meeting the requirements. I have no choice but to follow them.”
With the loss of Vietnam’s smaller fish farms, the country may also be losing its best chance of adopting Roel Bosma’s more ecological approach to aquaculture. Tach, for example, floods his rice fields with pond effluent instead of dumping it back into the river, fertilizing and watering his crop with the waste.
And before the pressure to adopt environmental standards like WWF’s, many pangasius farmers used home-made feeds that included farm byproducts like rice bran and vegetables. They even used ground up golden snails, a pest in their rice fields, as a source of protein. These practices may be more sustainable, environmentally and economically, than importing huge amounts of soy meal to feed the fish. But they would never pass the strict food safety standards required by big retailers in Europe and the US, where most Vietnamese pangasius ends up.
Which raises another key question in the search for a sustainable aquaculture model. Who’s it for?
At a small fish market in the Mekong Delta, pangasius is one of the cheapest fish you can buy. But there’s virtually no demand for it in other parts of the country. So as the pangasius tycoons like Duong Ngoc Minh focus on feeding the rich world in more sustainable way maybe the small producers, with their integrated farms, can focus on feeding the people who need protein the most: the world’s poorest.
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