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Considering the future of food

February 13, 2011

flickr/joost j. bakker

This weekend I thought a lot about food. I finished reading a fascinating book by Paul Greenberg titled “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” After finishing it, I thought a lot about the title. Greenberg states in his conclusion that when he told people the topic of his book he received one of two responses: “I didn’t know fish had a future,” or “Oh, you’re writing a book about fish. Which fish should I eat?” The latter seems to be the question on everyone’s minds lately. Here is an interesting answer found earlier in the book:

Currently the world’s wild catch measures 170 billion pounds–the equivalent in weight to the entire human population of China, scooped up and sliced, sauteed, poached, baked, and deep-fried, year in and year out, every single year. This is a lot of fish–six times greater than the amount of fish we took from the ocean half a century ago. But if we were to follow the advice of nutritionists, the amount would be far greater. The British Department of Health, for example, suggests that a person should eat a minimum of two servings of fish per week–one serving of oily fish, like salmon, and one serving of whitefish, like cod. So if every single human being were to do what the British government says we should do, we would require 230 billion pounds a year–60 billion pounds of fish more than we harvest at the most exploitative period in history.

Just consider that for a second. We, the 7 billion people that are currently inhabiting the planet consume over 170 BILLION pounds of fish a year. In one year. Most of us (myself included) know very little about the fish we eat. Menus are misleading, grocery stores are confusing and most of us don’t access fish markets on a weekly basis. The other day I was in a restaurant that had ‘eco-certified’ salmon the menu. That’s it, no information about who certified it, what that certification means, where the fish was from, whether it’s farm raised…just ‘eco-certified’.

The other part of that quote that scares me is the amount of fish we currently extract from the ocean is six times greater than what we took out 50 years ago. For every fish your parents or grandparents ate growing up, we now eat six.

The answer to “what fish should I eat?” is complex. Given our current population and voracious collective appetite, pretty much any fish that is singled out as a “good” fish to eat is immediately stressed from the sheer demand. Moderation is key. Sustainable management is key. Some domestication and farming is probably inevitable, but the methods must be scrutinized and perfected. When you eat fish, you should be knowledgable. You should ask the questions so you know where it is from, how it was raised, what the feed ratio is if it was farmed, what kind of feed it received, etc.

I continued my education about fish and food at a viewing party for a TEDxManhattan event called “Changing the Way We Eat“. They had some really interesting talks and showed a few pre-recorded TED talks including one of my favorite by Dan Barber on how he fell in love with a fish. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly suggest it. He visits a fish farm in southern Spain that looks at raising fish in the context of a larger ecosystem and it really is a fascinating lecture.

I came out of the TED webcast thinking about the future of food. How much further can we push our agriculture and aquaculture systems? There are studies and research being done to show that leaving wild systems intact is more economically viable than developing aquaculture. Why? Because systems work as a whole. If you take a piece out (for example, scoop up herring and sardines to grow larger fish) you have less food for top predators that may also be the top reproducers. The bottom line is that the ocean is an incredibly complex system.

I’ll leave you with one last thought via Paul Greenberg: “Indeed, with terrestrial food production now reaching its limits, the ocean is, in a sense, the final option, the only remaining way for humans to convert more of the world’s biomass and sun energy into more humans. The future of human growth depends largely on how we manage our ocean.”

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