Industrialized aquaculture is anchored in the ambitions of the “neoliberal globalization project” (p. 54), which aimed to provide a sustainable source of food for an ever-growing hungry global population. In Confronting the Blue Revolution, author Md Saidul Islam argues that industrialized aquaculture instead resulted in exploitation of the global South by privileged consumers in the developed countries of the North. The book is filled with insights from years of ethnographic research primarily in Bangladesh, with shrimp farming in ponds used as the case industry. The book provides in-depth analysis of the complex political, economic, and social dynamics surrounding the growth and proliferation of this industry.

The book does not really critique industrialization of aquaculture, as both the title and the abstract suggest it will. Rather, it introduces the problematization of the private regulatory regime, driven by the public through global quality certification schemes, which are seen as exemplifying a “paradigm shift in state power” (p. 161). These private certification schemes are motivated by the consciences of consumers in the developed North, molded by national and international NGOs emphasizing “soft” quality variables (such as employment and environmental issues), as well as by needs of powerful buyers such as Walmart.

The book uses two different lenses: the more overarching Global Needs angle (part I) and the more intimate and direct Local Effects angle (part II), though the two perspectives are intertwined throughout the book, emphasizing their interdependence. Islam also proposes a new model for understanding these dual quality governance processes of the global agri-food system, naming it the “twin-driven commodity chain.” In Part I, he lays out the conceptual foundations for this model, introducing and highlighting the interlinked institutional framework of the global agri-food system at the macro scale. He highlights core challenges to both the institutional system and ecosystems as a result of the global pressures for shrimp and other aquaculture commodities. As Islam says, the Blue Revolution emerged out of a need “to open up the natural resource pool of the global South to satisfy the appetites of wealthy consumers in the global North” (p. 49), which he (and others) derisively refer to as neoliberalism. He points out that most consumers do not consider the local consequences in communities of the global South of this exploitation.

The emerging power of international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both environmental and socially driven, brought “soft” quality variables to the table via private international regulation and certification regimes. Part I underscores the explicit power of local and international NGOs as well as large-scale global buyers, and demonstrates how they can dramatically affect communities where shrimp aquaculture is important, and in turn also local, regional, and national economies.

In Part II the author explores the effects of the twin-driven commodity chain model in more detail, delineating the effects of both arms of the regulatory regimes, and demonstrating that the road to hell indeed is paved with good intentions. This section presents in detail the ethnographic work Islam did over many years. He explores three stages of Bangladesh’s aquaculture: increasing industrialization despite resistance and violence, next depoliticization and negotiation, and finally normalization. In this process NGOs shifted from resistance to cooperation with local shrimp farmers, and the resultant birth of new international regulatory regimes brought awareness of the inadequate social and employment conditions often suffered by local workers in the industry.

New demands for certification that included the improvement of these conditions, however, often resulted in increasingly unfortunate working conditions for local workers instead. Employers denied permanent positions to workers when they could not afford to give them the rights that certification programs demanded for permanent hires. Many smaller businesses that could not afford the new technical and social standards were forced to close down or sell to larger companies and instead become employees rather than owners, yet another unintended consequence of a good intention.

This book offers analytical insight into global governance of the agri-food system, and Islam presents ample empirical details in the case study of Bangladesh and shrimp aquaculture. It leaves open opportunities for further exploration of the effects of industrial aquaculture on the global South. Questions that Islam poses but fails to answer throughout the book suggest that more work remains to be done on this narrow topic. The discussion of private certification labels as drivers of social and business changes for good and bad, and the issue of the power of international NGOs as vehicles of privatization of the public oversight role in environmental issues, will be of broad interest. It is important to understand the stakeholders involved and their role in society before implementing certification schemes that could have the opposite effect of what was intended. This book thus provides essential reading for those with an interest in the intricacies and complexities of the global agri-food system, the interlinked governance regimes affecting said system, and ways in which local communities may be affected.