After four years of discussion and debate, the first global guidelines for aquaculture, the planet’s fastest growing food sector, were adopted by a UN Food and Agriculture Organization panel last week.

The guidelines–which are non-binding but provide a framework for certification–were adopted by the subcommittee on Aquaculture of the Committee on Fisheries and cover a variety of issues ranging from food safety to environmental impact to the socioeconomic status of aquaculture workers.

“If the guidelines are followed in full by countries, certification will enable consumers standing at the fish counter to know whether the shrimp they are considering buying were raised without damaging a coastal mangrove swamp, whether the fish farm worker was paid a fair wage, and whether the shell fish is free of contamination,” according to FAO.

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, involves the farming of aquatic organisms like fin fish, plants, or shrimp. Seafood is cultivated in freshwater or saltwater under controlled conditions.

As wild seafood resources become scarce, about half of seafood harvested globally for human consumption is now from aquaculture, a practice that can have serious environmental and human health consequences.

“As the amount of farmed seafood produced rises, it is critical to minimize the negative impacts of aquaculture on the environment and society,” according to the World Wildlife Federation.  “For example, chemicals used at fish farms can pollute the water, diseases can spread easily from farmed to wild-caught fish and accident rates at fish farms can be high.”

But, as WWF notes, when done responsibly, aquaculture has a minimal impact on the environment and can be a viable way to raise healthy proteins for human consumption.

“These guidelines have been developed to bring some harmony to what is the fastest growing food sector in the world,” said FAO aquaculture expert Rohana Subasinghe. “Certification of aquaculture products has proliferated over the years claiming all kinds of things.  There was no criteria, no benchmarks or agreed principles.  Aquaculture products are globally traded and it is important that we ensure responsible production and consumer satisfaction.”

The guidelines call on governments to support capacity building for small and medium-sized producers so they can comply with aquaculture certification.

“There are ways for small producers to operate within a modern certification system.  For example, in India and Thailand clusters of fish farmers share the costs of certification so they are not too heavy for each farmer,” Subasinghe said.

The guidelines agreed to last week must be approved by the FAO’s full Committee on Fisheries in Rome in January before they become final.