Sunday, June 22, 2014

The great seafood shuffle

I'd been vaguely aware of the absurd distances seafood can travel after it has been caught, but this New York Times piece by Paul Greenberg laid out some of the details. In so doing, it also laid bare the insanity of the way we eat nowadays, at least in the U.S.

First, the statistic you should know but which our current eating habits suggest not enough of us do know:

While a majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of what Americans catch is sold to foreigners.
What is the consequence of this imbalance?
... when trade so completely severs us from our coastal ecosystems, what motivation have we to preserve them? I’d argue that with so much farmed salmon coming into the country, we turn a blind eye to projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which would process 10 billion tons of ore from a site next to the spawning grounds of the largest wild sockeye salmon run on earth.

I’d maintain that farmed shrimp inure us to the fact that the principal rearing ground of Gulf shrimp, the Mississippi River Delta, is slipping into the sea at a rate of a football field an hour. I’d venture that if we didn’t import so much farmed seafood we might develop a viable, sustainable aquaculture sector of our own. Currently the United States languishes in 15th place in aquaculture, behind microscopic economies like Egypt and Myanmar. And I’d suggest that all this fish swapping contributes to an often fraudulent seafood marketplace, where nearly half of the oceanic products sold may be mislabeled.

Why does this strange global trade in seafood exist, a trade that at first blush seems terribly wasteful in fuel and time (nothing goes bad faster than seafood)? It seems that it costs less to send the raw product overseas to have it processed, then shipped back to us. Yes: it costs less to ship tons of fish to Asia for cleaning, gutting, carving into filets or pulverizing into fish sticks, and then to ship much of that back to the U.S., than it would cost to process the fish domestically. Even counting the fuel and labor costs, our big domestic seafood companies make a bigger profit this way than they could by not shipping the fish. And this doesn't include the farmed seafood originally raised in Asia. (Nearly all of our shrimp comes from Asia, for instance.)

There are a couple of other big-picture points to make, however, that Greenberg ignores (though he may cover them in the book from which this essay was adapted).

First, the reason the costs make sense for big seafood companies is, their business models don't take into account externalities: the pollution caused by the production and consumption of fuel, the side effects of transporting invasive species in bilge water over tens of thousands of miles (U.S. waterways are being choked by various mollusks and our native species are being decimated by non-native species with no natural predators outcompeting them for food), the environmental and health hazards created by irresponsible aquaculture practices (overuse of antibiotics is one well-known problem; also, in the article's comments, see the one from "Scott L" of "PacNW" referencing the Bloomberg News story about a tilapia farm feeding its fish a substance too disgusting for me to mention), and so on. The free market has never had to account for the totality of its effects on our ecosystem: the global seafood trade is just one more example of our shortsightedness.

Second, while there's no doubt we in the U.S. consume more of the planet's natural resources per capita than anyone else, the frenzied growth of the seafood industry worldwide is not just a result of our ravenous maw. Asia, in particular, loves seafood, and many of its inhabitants lust after a U.S.-style standard of living. We're experiencing a crisis in sustainability already. What will the future hold as living standards worldwide rise and the population grows? If we want to avoid famine and war, we must reduce the planetary population. Period.

Right now Homo Sapiens is a cancerous species, reproducing wildly beyond the ability of the ecosystem to support our numbers. We tend not to notice because the developed world is able to pay to maintain its food and water supplies and the developing world accepts levels and types of malnutrition, disease, injury and death that would never be tolerated by developed nations. The status quo, however, is unsustainable, and you who disdain Malthus can go jump in a polluted lake. Cancer cells eventually kill the host, after which they die off, too. That's where we're headed if we don't confront our destructive industrial practices head-on. The costs will be high; livelihoods will be upended; our standard of living will likely take a hit. But we don't have a choice — not if we want a future as a species.

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