EARTHWATCH • FARMED SALMONPaul Henderson October 1, 2004
Where Did Your Dinner Come From?
Consumers today are armed like never before with the information that food producers and processors have been hiding, balking at, manipulating, and just plain lying about for decades. Yet most of us rarely ponder the source of our daily bread.
In a capitalist society everyone doing business has an interest to protect that business by all means necessary. The greater good of environmental protection and overall societal health is a goal left for (industry-lobbied) governments and (cash-strapped) environmental groups to struggle to achieve.
The current battle warming up to a boil is the one between environmental groups and the aquaculture industry (fish farmers) in the coastal waters of British Columbia. As usual the industry has all the money and the ear of government, but those trying to defend communities on the west coast aren’t backing down.
None other than David Suzuki has been rattling his sabre on this front, and he spoke to a group of chefs, farmers, retailers, organic activists, and gourmet foodies at the 15th Annual Feast of Fields held at Glen Rouge Park in September. His talk was followed by a panel discussion of experts facilitated by high-profile Canadian lawyer Clayton Ruby.
Suzuki railed against economic shortsightedness and environmental blindness.
“We have shattered the world into bits and pieces and in a fragmented world we don’t see the cause and effect of actions,” he told the packed crowd that came to see him speak before the feasting took place. “As consumers we have an impact with any decision we make. We have to put the world back together again.”
His broad strokes didn’t seem to be designed for hyperbole, but rather Suzuki’s pulling away from the topic of fish farming before getting to the meat of the issue seemed to be designed to do just that: Pull away and look at the big picture so often overlooked.
Where does our food come from? Who produced it or farmed it or caught it or killed it? How was it processed? Totally dissociated from farms in our urban and suburban environments are our children being taught about this process?
On this last question Suzuki told of spending a day with a group of school kids one time out on a conventional farm, with cows and pigs and chickens. An idyllic rural scene, but Suzuki said that the connection wasn’t made by those children to daddy’s barbecue.
“A little boy burst into tears because he never knew that hamburgers and wieners were the muscles of an animal.”
WHAT’S WRONG WITH FISH FARMING?
Fish farming is the source of much of the fish, and most of the salmon, in stores these days. Canned salmon is usually wild but those filets on ice at the store labeled Atlantic salmon are farmed. And they are farmed in the Pacific. There is no commercial salmon fishery on the Atlantic anymore. Those Atlantic salmon were raised in pens with millions of others, fed concentrated fish feed pellets with biocides and antibiotics, dyed with pink colouring, and shipped to your store.
To start with, there are higher concentrations of cancer-causing PCBs in farmed salmon. The industry argues that the amounts — in most cases — still fall under federal guidelines but the point is, more is more. And PCBs accumulate in one’s system meaning the more you eat, the more you collect. Farmed salmon are also fed antibiotics to help fight disease outbreaks. This of course leads to the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
So are there risks?
“That depends if you consider carcinogens risky,” says John Volpe, one of the panelists who received his PhD from the University of Victoria studying the ecology of farm-escaped Atlantic salmon. “But the biggest health problem is hydrocarbons.”
Salmon are carnivorous, meaning they have to be fed other fish. That means no matter how much “farming” the industry is doing, someone somewhere has to catch fish or other sea life to feed the salmon. For the most part that someone, somewhere is in South America, who then has to ship the feed up to B.C. causing the usual environmental degradation caused by excessive global transportation, not to mention the energy use in heated waters at terrestrial hatcheries, and so on.
It currently takes about 3.5 tons of energy to create a ton of farmed salmon, according to Volpe. And it takes about four or five pounds of sea life to create one pound of salmon. The aquaculture industry claims they are making great strides in reducing this “feed conversion ration” and have it down to about 1.4 to 1.
Regardless, this is leading to, as Suzuki puts it, “a catastrophic diminution of the oceans for the pelletizing of food.”
These pellets — made from sea life — move up the food chain to the grey-fleshed salmon in the pens, adding to the concentrations of PCBs and mercury in the fish. To get salmon to look natural the fish farm owners use the SalmoFanTM to select a desired colour (from bubblegum bright to dusty rose), much as you would select paint for your bathroom. They then add the corresponding level of chemical colourants — astaxanthin — to the fish feed and, voila, pink fish.
THE VAGARIES OF ECONOMICS 101
Suzuki talked about taking a first year economics course recently to get a solid grasp of the basics. There he learned about that most pernicious idea of modern economics: the “externality.” Economics, as Suzuki put it, is a belief system masquerading as a science. One of the clever tricks used to keep the modern economic system closed and manageable is to externalize — that is, ignore — many parts of the process of bringing goods and services to market. Nature, in all its glory — the forests (and their trees yearning to become two-by-fours), the mountain (and its deep buried ore), and the oceans — are all external to the economic system. That means two things: we can take of them liberally and indefinitely and GDP will only increase, and we can dump whatever we don’t want: toxic waste, sewage, and again, the GDP will rise.
As Joel Bakan points out in his book The Corporation, publically traded corporations are designed to be legally selfish. That means that no matter what mottos corporations have, and no matter what party line is spouted by their public relations people, there really are no limits to the harm corporations can cause to the actual world “when the benefits of doing so outweighs the costs.”
It is this corporation-as-externalizing-machine that, it could be argued, is the source of much, if not all, of the world’s environmental problems.
“Current economics is a form of brain damage,” Suzuki told the crowd quoting the futurist, evolutionary economist, and writer Dr. Hazel Henderson. “The entire ocean is an externality to the fish farming industry.”
Fish farms are directly in the ocean, and the fish are raised in huge numbers in net cages — essentially floating feedlots. Diseases and parasites such as sea lice, which exist in the wild but not in a major way, become a major problem in the tightly confined conditions of fish farms. And because the farmed fish are exposed to the ocean these diseases can, and do, spread to wild fish.
The ocean is also being treated as the toilet for the 85 fish farms currently in operation in B.C. waters. The waste that is created by those fish farms is equivalent to the waste — untreated of course — of a city of 500,000 inhabitants, according to the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR).
Jennifer Lash was a panelist and is the coordinator of CAAR, as well as founder and executive director of Living Oceans Society, a non-profit research outfit that works towards — in addition to sustainability in fish farming — the establishment of marine protected areas, and maintaining the moratorium on offshore oil and gas.
Lash is a resident of Sointula, a fishing community near the Broughton Archipelago on the coast of B.C. This area has one of the highest concentrations of fish farms in the province, and she has seen the damage that can be inflicted first hand.
Lash and the CAAR, which is made up of local native bands and community groups, doesn’t want the industry shut down, but rather they want to see it reformed to the point where aquaculture is sustainable. There is one simple way that would immediately eliminate all the environmental problems of fish farms, and that is closed containment. If the fish were in pens that were impermeable there would be no issue of disease and chemicals spreading to the ocean. But closed pens are way too expensive, according to the industry and are unlikely to be implemented.
These problems, if unresolved, will only multiply exponentially if they aren’t dealt with. The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance declares that the industry is “poised to grow in the next 10 years from a present day $700 million farm gate value to one conservatively valued in excess of $2.8 billion.”
Because of the way the industry dumps most of their costs onto the public environment it is a very profitable business. Part of that business brings relatively cheap salmon on to store shelves 12 months of the year and, much like how consumers are used to apples in March and mangoes…well, ever, consumers are used to having all foods from all places at all times.
So what are health- and cost-conscious consumers to do when wild salmon can be $7 a pound more expensive than farmed. Wild salmon is expensive. There is no doubt about it, but those trying to battle the environmental issues of fish farming are unsympathetic to that complaint.
“If price is the only criterion in your purchasing then you are aiding and abetting the mental illness of conventional economics,” said Volpe. “The costs are offloaded to the common environment.
For Lash it is much more personal even than that.
“Cheap for you is expensive for me,” she told the crowd. “Sea lice shut down nine streams in my community because of farmed salmon…We need to work within the cycles of the earth, and eat wild salmon when it is in season.”
WHAT THE INDUSTRY IS SAYING
The final member of the panel that was dominated by anti-aquaculture folks, preaching to an audience of the converted, was the brave David Rideout, executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA). Rideout did little for the reputation of the industry in this crowd, and little to sway the panel or the audience in favour of the CAIA.
The main argument in defense of the industry seems to fall along the lines of “we’re doing it more efficiently than nature, ergo, farmed is good.” In a dramatically one-sided piece in Eating Well magazine from spring of this year, editor James M. Lawrence finds all kinds of aquaculture folks who can say good things about their own industry.
“I have a hard time understanding how we ended up as the bad guys,” muses industry veterinarian Brad Hicks in Lawrence’s article. “The concept that we are somehow inefficient and mis-using marine resources is inaccurate.”
Lawrence then goes on to quote Hicks who argues that because farmed salmon have a feed-conversion ratio that is much lower than the wild fish, the industry is really quite efficient. The implication being that nature is inefficient and in fact, wasteful. A slightly mind-boggling conclusion to make. The point — totally lost on Lawrence and other fans of fish farming — is that we shouldn’t be eating so much fish. The alternative to eating farmed fish is not eliminating wild stocks of fish. The alternative is moderation in fish consumption.
Again, consumers are addicted to whatever they want, whenever they want, and that is the reason for worldwide environmental degradation in agriculture.
(Most offensive in the “Special Report” in Eating Well entitled Catch of the Day was a sidebar salmon taste test. Here the aquaculture industry promoter had five people trying various types of salmon. Lo and behold, the best tasting salmon, according to the group, was farm-raised salmon from Chile and from Scotland. The worst? Wild Sockeye Salmon from Alaska. “Looks like a plastic salmon toy. Yuck,” declared one taster. It would seem that those worried about farmed salmon are not only “chicken littles” on the health and the environmental front, but they are promoting the worst tasting fish too. Scientists could engineer spinach to taste like bubblegum, but that doesn’t make it a reason to feed it to your children.)
MORE LAME EXCUSES
Back at the Feast of Fields panel, Volpe was visibly annoyed by Rideout’s assertion — echoing those in the Eating Well article — that the aquaculture is more efficient than nature.
“The fate of a fish is that it will get eaten,” Volpe said. “In the industrial fish farming world you are removing food that is no longer available to the node.” In other words, no matter how efficiently you manage the fish feed you take from the oceans to feed the farmed fish, you are still taking it from the ocean so that wild fish become more scarce.
Rideout spoke mostly in rhetorical vagaries such as, being “committed to doing the right thing,” and needing to “promote dialogue and research,”
As with most industries, Rideout and the CAIA are oblivious to the precautionary principle, whereby products — and the means of producing those products — are proven safe. The reality is that the onus of proof falls on the local community members and native bands of B.C. who go fishing in streams as they have for thousands of years only to find no fish.
Further, Rideout’s defense of antibiotic, biocide, and chemical colouring use was about as palatable as a plate of grey fish flesh.
“The reality is we’ve been tinkering with nature for a number of years and we are living with the consequences of that tinkering…This (specifically, dyeing) is ubiquitous in food,” he said. “Don’t turn your back on fish. Do we need to work to get more sustainability? Yes.”
Unfortunately for Rideout his vague suggestions that it could be — and used to be — worse, and everybody’s-doing-it-so-why-can’t-we logic didn’t fly too well with the rest of the panel.
Suzuki, who had sat down after his speech, couldn’t contain himself and insisted on addressing the panel again after hearing Rideout.
“With all due respect you are a spokesperson for the industry,” he said adding that the auto industry said the same thing in the U.S. to Ralph Nader who was fighting for years over airbags. Now all cars have them and the industry brags about how safe they are. Same goes for the tobacco industry. Forestry and clearcutting is another example.
“They were dragged kicking and screaming to that point. Words are easy,” Suzuki said. “Let’s look at performance.”
Rideout had little to say but to concede that he is nothing but a mouthpiece for the industry.
“I believe the industry is doing it (improving),” he said. “But I’m a talking head. I’m paid to say that.”
Again, even the biggest critics of the industry are not protesting so the industry will shut down, but so they will reform. While not eating fish all the time is the logical solution to the problem, the market can’t be forced. People want salmon so the solution is to fight the industry until it shapes up. Consumers wield a lot of power as the organic industry is learning as it grows in giant strides.
But in its current state, aquaculture is being practised unsustainably, unhealthily, and unconscionably.
“The only reason aquaculture is economic,” said Volpe, “is because vast amounts of the cost of production are offloaded to the environment.”
• www.farmedanddangerous.org — Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform
• www.livingoceans.org — The Living Oceans Society
• www.davidsuzuki.org/Oceans/Aquaculture/ — The David Suzuki Foundation on aquaculture
• Also check out the David Suzuki Foundation’s newest campaign entitled Sustainability within a Generation at www.davidsuzuki.org/WOL/Sustainability/