Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What is sustainable seafood?

Here's a debate I can't quite wrap my head around. Or maybe can't quite wrap around my head.

Waitrose Supermarkets in the UK is selling tilapia from Zimbabwe, and critics say:
"People are starving in Zimbabwe. There is no food in the shops, there is no fish to be had there for the ordinary people. It's incredibly cruel taking food out of the mouths of starving people. It is very ill-advised of Waitrose. It is morally wrong."

But wait, a Waitrose spokesperson says it's not so simple..."This is a question of trying to encourage our customers to try species that aren't threatened but are just as tasty as cod," she said.

"...we source the tilapia from a fair trade supplier called Lake Harvest, which is majority-owned by native Zimbabweans. The company and its tilapia product contribute directly to the support of 450 workers and their dependants."

She said Lake Harvest pays workers substantially more than the minimum basic wage and offers performance pay, pension schemes and medical insurance.

"In Zimbabwe in the current political climate it's not unrealistic that each wage earner will be supporting up to 20 people," she said.

With these issues in mind, what is sustainability? Does it include the political situation of the country of origin for seafood? How about the foreign exchange needs of a country?


Anonymous said...

I think your questions are the big questions surrounding conservation, no?

I'd like to see your thoughts on anthromes (something I wrote)?

Mark Powell said...

Pristine dreams are a cloud that obscures clear thinking.

I clicked in, and I think you're right, ignoble gases. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Great question Mark. Nothing is easy, I suppose. Ultimately, I think, the well-being of people connected to the enterprise does have to be part of the equation. That is a big part of the argument by Nordhaus and Shellenberger, and whatever the overall merits of their book, I think they are on target with that.

The hard question is: how do you calculate the effect of this aquaculture operation on the well-being of the people affected? If the operation were not there, would those fish be there and available to the local people? If not, it is clearly not "taking food out of the mouths of starving people." Does the operation create jobs and revenue that help locals? In other words, are more people better off than if the operation were not growing fish there? The questions may be difficult to answer but they need to be considered carefully and objectively.

Anonymous said...

You hear about this?

Chilean sea bass at the Golden Globes (Patagonian toothfish).

How inappropriate. It is this sort of press that will put a higher demand on this overexploited fish.

Buck said...

Tilapia are horribly invasive and can wreck natural ecosystems – that is not very sustainable and arguably promotes disorder. Folks throw the word sustainable around but do not know what it really means. There could never be 100% sustainability because that would defy the second law of thermodynamics or the entropy law. “Thermodynamics indicates that economic growth leads to increasing disorder” Sustainable development attempts to bring down the level of disorder or manage it. It is all we can really do.

People often confuse organic and sustainable or use them interchangeably. If I purchase organically grown apples from New Zealand at a supermarket in Michigan versus picking the apples growing in my own backyard in Michigan that behavior is not very sustainable. In fact, purchasing apples grown through the traditional mechanization process here in Michigan is actually more sustainable then me purchasing organic apples grown in New Zealand. However, locally grown organic produce from small farmers is much more sustainable and efficient in terms of economic opportunity and not increasing the entropy within a system. The same can be extrapolated to fish.

People make the argument for tilapia because they grow fast and can be fed on a vegetarian diet. I use to farm them in Peace Corps as part of an integrated sustainable farming model. The pond is stocked with fingerlings and a compost/cow manure pile is used to produce an algal bloom to feed the fish in addition to any vegetable scarps such as rice and taro leaves. In 6 months, you have hand-sized tilapia that are great for frying. You harvest and keep some fingerlings to restock. It is a pretty sustainable system with no need for fertilizer inputs. The downside is that Tilapia are invasive and must be kept appropriately so they do not escape. In Madagascar, unfortunately tilapia were everywhere and pose a threat to the beautiful native cichlids. Since tilapia sp. are African cichlids too, I was interested in possibly farming native cichlid species to preserve biodiversity and promote an alternative but the country broke out in war. As we all know, war is not very sustainable.

Mark Powell said...

Buck, what about the concern that farming native species will produce inferior strains of native species that will interbreed if they escape? Using natives is not a solution by itself.

Escapes are a problem, but what do we do? Stop all fish farming? There are many issues involved in sustainability, as you have pointed out. Since we have to grow food, we should compare impacts of various options, not look for mythical zero impact solutions.

Buck said...

I agree that using natives should not be a single solution or probably even viable in most situations. I just thought it was a good idea at the time and probably could work since tilapia nilotica had to be viewed as such at one time. "We should compare impacts of various options" was my point exactly since zero impact cannot happen. A holistic, healthy, negotiated, well thought framework is best.