Tom Philpott of Mother Jones had a great post earlier this week looking at the vast environmental damage caused by shrimp farming in South and Southeast Asia. He takes off from a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by J. Boone Kauffman of Oregon State University, which examined the destruction of coastal mangrove forests that allows shrimp farms to be established and found that shrimp’s carbon footprint is 10 times higher than that of beef cattle. Tom says:
Mangroves, it turns out, are rich stores of biodiversity and also of carbon — and when they’re cleared for farming, that carbon enters the atmosphere as climate-warming gas.
Kaufman estimates that 50 to 60 percent of shrimp farms occupy cleared mangroves, and the shrimp that emerges from them has a carbon footprint 10 times higher than the most notoriously climate-destroying foodstuff I’m aware of: beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rainforest.
Kaufman calls the shrimp-farming style that prevails in Asia “the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture,” because farm operators typically “only last for 5 years or so before the buildup of sludge in the ponds and the acid sulfate soil renders them unfit for shrimp,” he told Science.
Because Tom talks mostly about environmental damage, I want to add one thing. Make no mistake: Shrimp farms in South and Southeast Asia are essentially factory farms, with all that implies — including antibiotic overuse.
We eat enormous amounts of shrimp in this country, and 90 percent of it is imported: 1.23 billion pounds’ worth in 2010, according to SeafoodSource.com. Vietnam is 5th-largest on the list of shrimp importers to the United States. Over the past year, Japan has turned back Vietnamese shrimp for containing significant amounts of antibiotic residues. From Tuoi Tre News last month:
Many local seafood exporters are on the brink of halting operation, or even bankruptcy, as their shrimp exports to Japan have recently been found to contain excessive levels of the antibiotic enrofloxacin.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnamese shrimp bound for Japan last year were 56 times detected to be tainted with enrofloxacin residues exceeding limits.
Consequently, Vietnam had to re-import the aquatic products, which the ministry said not only created adverse impact on the reputation of the local industry but could also cause some foreign markets to turn back on Vietnamese seafood.
Hoang Thanh Vu, an employee in charge of quality at a frozen shrimp exporter, said his company had been three times warned by Japanese importers about the antibiotic residue.
This was not a one-time event. In 2007, the US Food and Drug Administration banned five species of farmed seafood grown in China, including shrimp. CNN reported at the time:
“FDA is initiating an import alert against several species of imported Chinese farmed seafood because of numerous cases of contamination with drugs and unsafe food additives,” said Dr. David Acheson, the agency’s assistant commissioner for food protection, in a conference call with reporters.
The species cited are catfish, eel, shrimp, basa and dace, he said. Basa is similar to catfish; dace is similar to carp.
The medications cited include the antimicrobials nitrofuran, malachite green, gentian violet and fluoroquinolones. Nitrofuran, malachite green, and gentian violet have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Use of fluoroquinolones in food-producing animals can result in antibiotic resistance.
In 2008, Don Kraemer, FDA’s deputy director in the Office of Food Safety, said in testimony before the U.S. and China Economic and Security Review Commission:
As the aquaculture industry continues to grow, concern about the use of unapproved drugs and unsafe chemicals in aquaculture operations has increased significantly. There is clear scientific evidence that the use of unapproved antibiotics and other drugs and chemicals, such as malachite green, nitrofurans, fluoroquinolones, and gentian violet, can result in the presence of residues in the edible portions of aquacultured seafood. Fluoroquinolones are not approved for use in food fish and have been prohibited from extra-label use in the U.S. and many other parts of the world because of public health concern about the development of antimicrobial resistance.
And just to bring this up to date: Last April, the FDA admitted in a report by the US Government Accountability Office that “FDA’s oversight program to ensure the safety of imported seafood from residues of unapproved drugs is limited”:
… during fiscal years 2006 through 2009 FDA analyzed 279 shrimp samples out of the 1,060 shrimp samples collected for residues of nitrofurans… In fiscal year 2008, according to its annual work plan, FDA planned to collect 125 shrimp samples for nitrofurans analysis. Although FDA collected a total of 349 shrimp samples, it tested only 34 for residues of nitrofurans, and 6 (18 percent) of these samples were found to contain nitrofurans.
In his post, Tom urged taking a second look at the bountiful platters of shrimp offered by fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, because what they may represent is profound environmental damage. That’s correct, but it’s not the whole story. They also represent the sort of antibiotic misuse that has consumers wary of antibiotic resistance and suspicious of beef, pork and chicken in the United States — and they may have been produced with even more antibiotics, and even less oversight, than we have here.