This post is from Andy Homan, a third year JD student at VLS and a joint research project (JRP) student for 2013-2014 with the US-China Partnership for Environmental Law. The JRP students recently traveled to China to meet their research partners and further their projects. These posts share the student’s experience on the research trip and provide insight into their substantive areas of research.
Of the four participants in this year’s Joint Research Program, I was the only one who had never traveled to China or studied Mandarin. While this led to some uneasiness, particularly during the days leading up to the trip to China, I felt certain that my areas of research—consumer protection law and food labeling—could contribute to improvement of the environmental impacts of food production in China. The Joint Research Program paired me with my Chinese research partner, Ding Tingting, and together we developed a research project to explore the question of whether strong enforcement of consumer protection laws, combined with third-party certification of “sustainable” farmed fish and seafood in China, could effectively reduce the environmentally harmful effects of this sector of food production. Tingting and I communicated by email and developed a first draft of our paper, “Making Aquaculture Accountable Through Consumer Protection Law and Third-Party Certification in China and the U.S.”
Aquaculture—the farming of fish and seafood—originated in China thousands of years ago. Today, China leads the world in the production of farmed fish and seafood. Inland aquaculture in China occupies hundreds of millions of acres. The average Chinese consumer eats well over 30 kilograms of fish and seafood per year, and the worldwide appetite for fish and seafood is increasing. Meanwhile, the supply of “wild caught” seafood is being depleted. As a result, the demand for fish has led to increasingly intensive forms of aquaculture, including marine-based “open net” systems as well as land-based ponds. Additionally, most fish consumed in the U.S. originates in China, and much of it comes from fish farms.
While farmed fish and seafood arguably decrease pressure on the world’s depleted wild fisheries, aquacultural production in its current, concentrated forms results in negative environmental impacts. While aquaculture encompasses a wide variety of practices, most commercial aquaculture involves heavy use of food and pharmaceutical inputs, which combined with the waste from the fish result in high levels of water pollution. The most common form of inland aquaculture, a simple pond system, involves filling a manmade pond with water, raising hundreds of thousands of fish it, then discharging the water, along with excess nutrients and antimicrobial pharmaceuticals, when the fish are harvested.
For this reason, both the U.S. and China require permits to operate large-scale inland fish farms, and aquaculture falls under the regulation of a variety of government agencies in both countries. Nevertheless, many facilities fall under the minimum size for permitting under the Clean Water Act in the U.S., and in China, many fish farms simply never acquire a permit. Recent food safety scandals—including contamination with pharmaceuticals banned in the U.S.–have raised public awareness of aquaculture—driving demand for certified, “eco,” or “sustainably farmed” fish in the U.S. But because the supply chains for fish are so opaque—recent studies have revealed widespread mislabeling of species of fish for sale in the U.S. –consumer can hardly know that the fish they are buying are the correct species, let alone from the claimed source. Indeed, a single container of fish imported from China may contain fish from hundreds of sources, and with millions of aquaculture ponds in China, traceability to the source is unlikely. And while the FDA has regulatory authority to inspect imported fish, it lacks the resources to inspect more than a few percent of the fish entering the marketplace. It is safe to say that while the governments of China and the U.S. regulate the safety and environmental impacts of farmed fish, for whatever reasons the regulation does not effectively result in raising the bar to encourage fish farmers to engage in practices that are safer and cleaner. Because aquaculture depends on clean water yet at the same time causes high levels of water pollution, without regulation, it will ultimately destroy the very conditions of its productive operation. Frankly, at the culmination of this research into the regulation of aquaculture, I was shocked at the discrepancy between the apparent care and regulation on the part of government, and the inability to provide the desired outcomes—safe food, produced without extreme environmental harm.
Having completed the preliminary research, I traveled to China for the last weeks of December, 2013. Upon our arrival in Beijing, Adam Moser, Assistant Director of the U.S-China Partnership for Environmental Law, greeted us at the airport and brought us to our hotel, directly across the street from the Chinese University of Political Science and Law (CUPL). The first evening, I experienced an initial taste of China that I will never forget—a spicy Sichuan-style hotpot, complete with organ meats and varieties of mushrooms and greens that defied translation. Observing the enthusiastic dining all around the busy restaurant, I felt comforted by the central, noble place of good food within a country that at the same time struggled to produce so much food in a safer and more environmentally responsible manner. I also resolved to fully appreciate food in China by eating everything—even unfamiliar and extremely spicy foods. (In full disclosure, I had “trained” myself on chili peppers for nearly two months before the trip—an effort that paid off in dividends.
The following morning, I finally met Tingting. She is a postgraduate student at CUPL, studying environmental law. At the time, she was finishing her exams for the semester and interning with a judge at the Supreme People’s Court—the highest court in China. We had a lovely time getting to know each other, and it was enlightening and fun to discuss the differences between the legal systems in the U.S. and China. Tingting showed me around the CUPL, which is an interesting counterpart to Vermont Law School because, like VLS, it is a school entirely devoted to law and policy. Tingting and I focused our paper on consumer protection law, and we looked at the ways existing consumer protection law in China and the U.S. would regulate—and motivate—third-party certifications and seals of approval which would effectively raise the bar for safer and more ecological aquaculture.
For all our research on the topic of aquaculture and its regulation, Tingting and I had never seen a working fish farm. She arranged for a very special opportunity for both of us—a visit to a lab operated by the National Engineering Research Center for Freshwater Fisheries. Director Wang, an official from the administrative section of the Research Center, drove us to the warm-water lab, which was over an hour away. During the drive—during which I was taking in the experience of Beijing traffic!–we discussed aquaculture in China, and Tingting translated as Director Wang explained the efforts taken by the Research Center to promote cleaner aquacultural practices. At the lab, we saw massive breeding tanks for ornamental fish as well as Nile tilapia, one of the varieties of farmed fish popularly consumed in the U.S.. Employees of the lab and Director Wang showed us the various systems they have developed for cleaning the water in recirculating systems, the technology they implement for monitoring water quality, and some (drained and frozen) outdoor ponds of the conventional “fill-and-drain” variety. Tingting’s advisor, Professor Hu, met us at the lab and we discussed our project with him. It was a rare experience to be shown this research facility, and in just a few hours, Tingting and I were able to see many aspects of the systems about which we had only read articles. It is one thing to read about a pond containing 200,000 fish; it is another matter to actually see one, and I was grateful for the experience.
After the visit, Professor Hu invited Director Wang, Tingting, and I for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Professor Hu cautiously inquired if I was a vegetarian or had other eating restrictions and I replied that I would eat anything. “Even very spicy?” he asked. “Especially very spicy!” I replied to his delight. We enjoyed dumplings, sweet fried squash coated in nuts, and the spiciest fish that I have ever eaten. Our conversation drifted from fish and water pollution to soil conservation. On the drive home, Director Wang pointed out a huge facility for indoor, winter growing of strawberries, subsidized by the government. I was struck once again by the cultural centrality of food, and by the scale and intensity of food production in China.
The trip also included other opportunities to hear perspectives on the state of environmental law in China, and to get feedback on my research from individuals on the ground in China. The research fellows visited the U.S. embassy and met with Phillip Gatins, who graciously offered feedback on our research. Another highlight was a dinner with Gillian Wong, an AP correspondent with an interest in food safety issues in China.
While the opportunity to meet Tingting in person and to develop our project further was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip, I cherish a panorama of illuminating pictures of China: A grandmother bouncing a plump baby on her leg while she ate dimsum in a Guangzhou restaurant. An enormous, posh, and largely empty shopping mall in Beijing. The hazy smog of Beijing. The numbing spices of food on Ghost Street in Beijing; the stacks of dumpling steamers in Guangzhou. Aged citizens playing pingpong in a small park only a few blocks away from where the Emperors sat on thrones in the Forbidden City. The Emperors’ collection of exotic clocks. Beautiful, efficient, clean subways. The warmhearted conversation among students, professors, and environmental lawyers at a dinner; duck heads and pungent soup and so much laughter. The enthusiasm of the students and professors at CUPL and at Sun Yat-sen University (in Guangzhou), the heartfelt camaraderie at the end-of-year party at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Beijing, and the engaged work of Tingting and the other research partners will remind me of the human beings whose efforts are striving to make improvements in the midst of economic forces that drive environmental impacts in China.