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Greenpeace's #JustTuna campaign, does it tell the whole story?

By now we are all used to software upgrades. This week in much the same way Greenpeace issued its updated tuna league table. This time it’s a truly global campaign with all the main consumer markets for canned fish as well as producer countries being assessed. 

The Greenpeace mission is to convert more tuna to sustainably sourced pole and line fishing. The mechanism is old fashioned stick and carrot – praise and encouragement versus damnation. It has been an impressive and slick campaign, year in year out, extracting promises and improvements in quick succession. 

Greenpeace is helped massively by the lazy or pressured nature of modern journalism: the PR press release is published verbatim and no research is done. This is a great shame because the long term effectiveness of this tactic needs to be questioned. Past league tables to suppress chemicals in the clothes industry have seen those very same chemicals return a few years later as the attention moves on. More troubling is the failure to deal with nuance. Greenpeace’s table winners are supermarket brands which for the most part have their tuna category subsidised massively by the table’s losers, brands like John West or Princes. In effect your cheap sustainably fished tuna is paid for by the unsustainable tuna. 

Next if John West is to be criticised for dodgy Thai dealings, including the use of slave labour further down the chain, surely the same criticism must be applied to its supermarket clients because John West’s parent company also makes some of the supermarket brands! Furthermore look at the Ethical Consumer Research Association’s guide to canned tuna and the ranking of these large brands is in fact reversed.  

The problem with a League Table approach is that it is like a torchlight in the dark pointing brightly to one spot but failing to see the whole picture. A whole picture approach is one that fans of the Sustainable Food Trust will instantly recognise – it is holistic, integrated, and comprehensive and arrived at for authentic reasons and real commitment. Indeed if you adjust the Ethical Consumer ranking to exclude animal rights issues (which given that tuna in a can is killed seems to be a correct approach) out brand Fish4Ever scores 3x higher than the first supermarket brand, Waitrose, which led the latest Greenpeace table – a score in percentage terms of 9 out of 10 versus a measly 3 out of 10. I recognise a small brand can get it right more easily but given that the Greenpeace torch hides as much as it reveals, that WWF has endorsed John West and that Ethical Consumer, an independent and thorough audit system, shuffles the pack differently, I think the problem is bigger than that.  

Basically there is an elephant in the room: cheap food and commodity market systems. Low prices come at a cost that is both social and environmental. We’ve seen it again in milk this year. The same goes for tuna. I fear that only a true cost accounting approach can solve the conundrum long term, in fish as in farming: damage done must be factored into the true cost of a product. In the meantime I wish Greenpeace all the best: our food system is broken and debased and is in dire need of being shaken to the core.    

Charles Redfern
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