What Industrial Farming Has to Do With Devastated Seas

I spent the end of last week at the latest iteration of the Sustainable Foods Institute, an intense two days of discussion that the Monterey Bay Aquarium (home of Seafood Watch, the guide to sustainable seafood choices) puts on every year to bring together journalists, advocates and chefs. The Institute takes place within Cooking for Solutions, an overlapping food and wine conference dedicated to the proposition that sustainability and care for the planet are inseparable from deliciousness.

This is not as universal an idea as you might think. As the conference was opening, the New York Times ran a joint interview with the globally influential chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz in which they explicitly rejected ecological concerns over where or from whom they source the food they serve. Keller: “Is global food policy truly our responsibility? … I don’t think so.” Aduriz: “To align yourself entirely with … sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.” (In a great response piece, Grist food editor Twilight Greenaway explains why their thinking is so short-sighted.)

But “global food policy” ought to be the concern of anyone who raises, grows, catches, fishes, forages, sells or even just eats food — because, as University of Minnesota academic Jonathan Foley said in a devastating talk halfway through the two days: “We’re running out of everything. We’re running out of planet.”

Foley, who directs the university’s Institute for the Environment, totted up the costs of agriculture as we now conduct it:

  • 40 percent of the Earth’s surface is already devoted to growing food via cultivation or on pasture
  • agriculture is responsible for at least 30 percent of all greenhouse gas releases
  • since 1960, water use has tripled and fossil-fuel consumption has quadrupled
  • agriculture in some countries (India) uses 100 times the water used by other countries (Israel)
  • the “Green Revolution” has run out of steam and cereal yields are stagnating or declining.

Yet to feed the world population of 9 billion that is forecast by 2050 — not to mention satisfying the rising appetite for Western meat-based diets in the emerging economies of China and India — “we have to double food production while halving environmental costs,” Foley said. “We must do both; we can’t choose.” (For more, here’s a similar TEDx talk Foley did last year.)

One obvious place to turn for more protein has been the oceans, which is where the Monterey connection comes in; though the two-day program focused on both land and water food production, the fate of the seas and their species were clearly where the program’s heart lay. (One entire day took place at the Aquarium, and a second day at a hotel where otters and seals wove past the deck railing.) Callum Roberts, the opening speaker and author of the forthcoming book The Ocean of Life, reminded participants that populations of some marine species are down by 99 percent — most of the way to extinction — while in some parts of the oceans, most or all of the combined megafauna, the seagoing mammals and biggest fish, have vanished.

As I listened to the presentations, it struck me how often concerns for the oceans run in parallel with the topics we talk about here, especially the effects and unintended consequences of very large scale farming.

One example: With the oceans gravely overfished, seafood production has turned instead to fish-farming; José Villalon of the World Wildlife Fund said that aquaculture is growing by 9 percent per year. But making edible-sized fish in fish-farming requires feeding them smaller fish, and so concerns are growing that the smallest fish in the oceans, so-called “forage fish,” are being overfished as well. (Here’s an influential paper from 2000 that started the conversation about converting small fish to big fish.)

What’s especially interesting to me about that, beyond the obvious concern for ocean strip-mining, is that fishmeal — the stuff that forage fish become — isn’t only used for fish feed. Until now, it’s been inexpensive and easy to obtain, and so it has been used in a setting where cheap and abundant are crucial to profit margins: raising food animals on a large scale.

A 2008 paper took apart the uses of fishmeal and discovered one-third of all the forage fish caught, such as anchovies and sardines, were being used to feed not only farmed fish but also industrially raised pigs and poultry. (Here’s the paper’s abstract, and an informative press release about it.) As of 2008, according to the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization, 31 percent of the fishmeal made every year was going specifically to feed pigs, and 9 percent to chickens. In March, the latest report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, run from Stony Brook University, recommended cutting forage-fish catches by half, arguing that they are undermining tuna, striped bass and bluefish while propping up unsustainable livestock production.

As the journalist and experienced fisherman Paul Greenberg has said: “If we are serious about curtailing our impact on the oceans, we should insist that land-based farm animals stick to land-grown feed.”

I’ve grown accustomed, when I calculate the risks and benefits of very large scale farming, to adding back in the external costs that so consistently seem to be ignored: antibiotic resistance, local pollution, labor abuses, animal cruelty. But that the externalities could extend even to disrupting the oceans was new to me, and completely eye-opening.

The irony in all this, as panelists in Monterey said (and journalist Marc Gunther captured afterward), is that fish-farming has perceived the unsustainability of forage-fish harvesting, and is moving away from fishmeal and toward alternative foods such as soy.* The important question is whether very large scale agriculture will follow.

For more thoughts about the really wide-ranging discussions at the Sustainable Foods Institute, see these pieces by Sam Fromartz, Bryan R. Walsh, Paula Crossfield, Sarah Henry, and a second by Marc Gunther.


(*…which raises the issue of GMO, but that’s a separate column, and not my expertise.)

(Update: Turns out Clare Leschin-Hoar wrote a piece for Grist in February about the possibility of GMO-free soy aquaculture. Here it is.)

Top Image: philipMarcus83/Flickr


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