Food Revolution: Reversing the Spread of Hunger, Part III

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'. Fishful Thinking As the number of people on Earth has mounted and the amount of farmland has shrunk, the world has looked increasingly to the oceans for food. From 1950 to 1990, the world’s oceanic fish catch climbed from 19 million tons to 89 million tons. But since 1990, there has been no growth in the catch. (55) For the first time in history, the world can no longer rely on the oceans for an expanding food supply. In fact, most of the world’s fisheries are now depleted or in steep decline—developments that have serious implications for world hunger.

In 1997, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 11 of the world’s 15 major oceanic fishing grounds had gone into serious decline as a result of overfishing. Thirty-four percent of all fish species were vulnerable to, or in immediate danger of, extinction. A year later, the journal Science concluded that the destruction of life in the oceans had progressed farther than anyone had suspected. (56) As fish stocks have decreased and fish factories have had more difficulty filling their quotas, fishing ships have been dropping their nets ever deeper, hauling in and discarding ever-higher percentages of unusable fish. (57) Further, they have been willing to take ever-smaller fish. Worldwatch Institute’s Ed Ayres describes the chain of events:

“The small species are normally the food for larger ones, so as the nets reach down the food chain to the smaller varieties, the larger ones lose their sustenance and begin to die off. At the same time, in their efforts to take more of the smaller fish, the floating factories also haul in more of the juveniles of the larger species—thus undermining future fish populations as well as exhausting the existing ones. That, in turn, not only steals food from future human generations to feed the present, but pushes more oceanic species to the brink, or over the brink of extinction.” (58)

Restaurant patrons in the eastern United States may have noticed a recent campaign to remove swordfish from menus until the species, stressed now to the point of collapse, has a chance to recover. At present, nearly two-thirds of swordfish caught in the North Atlantic today are too young to breed. (59) Most of us think of fish as a renewable harvest resource, like wheat, rather than species that are endangered, like panda or tiger. (60) But as the technology used to vacuum every last fish from the ocean has become increasingly sophisticated, species after species has been pushed toward extinction. As Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly notes,

“Trawlers are now using technology developed by the military to fish waters as deep as a mile, catching species that few would have considered edible or useful a decade ago. Now that the shallow fisheries are in serious decline, trawl nets fitted with wheels and rollers are dragging across the bottom of the deep oceans, removing everything of any size. . . . Radar allows ships to operate in the fog and the dark; sonar locates the fish precisely; and GPS (geographical positioning system) satellites pinpoint locations so that ships can return to productive spots. Formerly-secret military maps reveal hidden deep-sea currents of nutrient-rich water, where fish thrive. Combined with larger nets made from new, stronger materials, modern fishing vessels guided electronically can sweep the oceans clean—and that is precisely what is happening. As a result, the ocean’s fish are disappearing.” (61)

What We Know

  • Amount of fish caught per person, worldwide, sold for human consumption in 1996: 16 kilograms (62)
  • Amount of marine life that was hauled up with the fish and discarded, per person, in 1996: 200 kilograms (63)
  • Amount of world’s fish catch fed to livestock: Half (64)

In 1992, Don Tyson, the Arkansas chicken tycoon, purchased the Arctic-Alaska Fisheries Company and three other fishing companies. These companies operate a fleet of industrial super-trawlers that each cost $40 million to build and are each the length of a football field. They pull nylon nets thousands of feet long through the water, capturing everything in their path, typically taking in 800,000 pounds of fish in a single netting. (65)

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What We Know

  • Nation’s leading surimi producer (surimi is deboned fish tissue that can be used to make fish sticks, synthetic “crab meat,” and other products): Tyson Foods (66)
  • Reason President Clinton’s first Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, was fired: Inappropriately accepted “gifts” from Tyson Foods (67)
  • Fines paid by Tyson Foods upon pleading guilty to federal gratuities statutes on December 29, 1997: $4 million, plus $2 million investigation costs (68)
  • Federal subsidies received by Tyson’s factory-trawler fleet: $200 million (69)
  • Likely result if current overfishing trends continue: Wholesale collapse of marine ecosystems (70)

Salmon have long captured the imaginations of human beings. Spending part of their lives in streams and part in the sea, these fish, by using a sense of smell thought to be 1,000 times more acute than that of dogs, return to their birthplace to spawn. But in recent years, their numbers have plummeted. In 1994, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to help salmon in the Snake River in Washington State, but the effort was a failure. That fall, only 800 Chinook returned, and only a single Sockeye made it. (71) To my eyes, this is a tragedy, and not just for the fish. Healthy and plentiful wild salmon play a crucial and irreplaceable role in the functioning of a vast array of ecosystems, including rivers, lakes, and forests. David Suzuki explains the mechanism:

“Salmon spend their adult lives at sea, thousands of kilometers from their birthplace in forested and mountain streams. Marine carbon and nitrogen isotopes leave a unique ‘signature’ that scientists can detect, and of course, after years in the ocean, salmon carcasses are full of these two important atomic nutrients. After the adult salmon make the arduous journey from the ocean back to their natal streams, they spawn and die. Various predators—bears, eagles, wolves—catch them and leave their remains on land. . . . They nourish fish, mammals and birds throughout the forest. In the water, the dead salmon are digested by fungus, which in turn nourishes bacteria that sustain insects, copepods and other invertebrates in the stream. And like fallen logs in the forest, their decaying flesh provides nourishment for their own offspring. When the fry emerge from the gravel, a banquet awaits: 25 to 40 percent of the carbon and nitrogen in juvenile salmon comes from the remains of their parents. Isotope studies show that 30 percent of the vital nitrogen and carbon in aquatic algae and insects, and 18 percent in vegetation along the river, comes directly from salmon.” (72)

In order to thrive, forests need the salmon. Biologists tell us that in a single season, a bear will carry about 700 partially consumed salmon carcasses into the forest. After consuming salmon, bears (and also eagles, wolves, and ravens) defecate, spreading the salmon remnants throughout the forest, providing the trees with their primary source of nitrogen fertilizer. There is in fact a direct correlation between the width of tree rings (a measure of tree growth) and the amount of marine carbon and nitrogen, reflecting the size of that year’s salmon run. Although grizzly bears went extinct in Oregon in 1931, hides of these animals have been preserved and studied, so we know that up to 90 percent of the nitrogen and carbon in the bears’ bodies was of marine origin. If we continue to think of fish, and indeed the whole of the natural world, as existing primarily to fulfill our immediate needs, we will pay a stupendous price for our ignorance. Is Fish Farming the Answer? In an effort to compensate for falling wild fish stocks, and to help feed ever-growing populations, more and more fish are being farmed. Aquaculture output is today the fastest growing sector of both the United States and the world food economy. (73) In 1985, barely 5 percent of the world’s fish for food was produced by aquaculture. But by 2000, the share produced by fish farms accounted for nearly a third of the world’s total fish consumption. (74) By then, virtually all the catfish and rainbow trout, half the shrimp, and one-third the salmon eaten in the United States were the product of fish farms. Unfortunately, the promise of aquaculture to alleviate pressure on marine ecosystems has thus far proven disappointing. The farming of shrimp, salmon, trout, bass, yellowtail, and other carnivorous species has actually increased demands on marine production in order to provide feed for the farmed fish. It takes 5 pounds of wild ocean fish to produce a single pound of farmed saltwater fish or shrimp. (75) In 2000, Rosamond Naylor, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies, wrote in a cover story in the journal Nature that “aquaculture is . . . a contributing factor to the collapse of fisheries stocks around the world.” (76) She and the articles’ other authors, representing institutes of aquaculture from all over the world, added that as a result of fish farming, some populations of herring, mackerel, sardines, and other fish low in the marine food chain are in danger of disappearing from the world’s oceans. (77) Aquaculture contributes to the decline of oceanic fish in another way as well. Diseases and parasites thrive in the densely populated conditions of fish farms, and can easily spread to wild populations. There were 800,000 wild Atlantic salmon in 1975, but by 2000 their numbers had been reduced to a mere 80,000. When the World Wide Fund for Nature and the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization cited the three reasons for this loss, one of them was disease and parasites stemming from salmon farms. (78) As is the case with cattle, poultry, and pigs, raising large numbers of fish in confined environments puts abnormal stress on the fish, which increases vulnerability to outbreaks of disease both on the farm and in surrounding waters. The result, as with the factory farming of livestock, is greater use of antibiotics and other chemicals. Fish farmers are using chemicals to kill bacteria, herbicides to prevent the growth of vegetation in ponds, and other drugs to treat diseases and parasites. Fish farming is one of the most intensive forms of animal agriculture. As many as 40,000 fish may be crammed into a cage, with each fish given the equivalent of half a bathtub of water in which to spend its life. (79) The wild salmon migrates thousands of miles, but the caged fish goes nowhere. The wild fish develops its pinky-orange color partially from eating krill, but the caged fish is often fed artificial pigments to create this desired color, as well as vaccines and hormones. Consumers, presented with salmon wrappers that portray leaping salmon, mountains, and glistening streams, typically do not know their fish comes increasingly from fish farms. In 1990, only 6 percent of the salmon consumed in the world were the product of fish farms. But by 1998, the number had risen to 40 percent. (80) The value of salmon as a healthy food is primarily due to their extremely high concentration of Omega-3 fatty acids. No salmon, or any other fish or animal, manufactures Omega-3s, but wild salmon get them by eating particular algae that make these important nutrients, and then storing them in their body fat. Wild salmon are a plentiful source of Omega-3s. Farmed salmon, however, have far less of these essential nutrients. The situation is similar in cattle and other livestock kept in confinement. Meats from grain-fed feedlot cattle have far less Omega-3s than meats from pastured animals. Milk, butter, and cheese from grain-fed cows are markedly deficient in Omega-3s. And supermarket eggs have only 5 percent as much Omega-3s as do eggs laid by free-range chickens. (81) There are some substances, however, that farmed fish, like factory farmed livestock, provide in abundance. Unfortunately, they are not substances you want to eat. As with factory cattle, pigs, and chickens, the food given to farmed fish frequently contains potentially dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. In 2001, independent studies conducted in Canada, Scotland, and the United States found that farmed fish contained much higher levels of pollutants, including ten times more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), than wild fish. “The results were very, very clear,” noted Dr. Michael Easton, a Vancouver-based geneticist and expert in ecotoxicology. “Farmed fish and the feed they were fed appeared to have a much higher level of contamination with respect to PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers than did wild fish. In short, it was extremely noticeable.” These pollutants affect the central nervous system, the immune system, and can cause cancers. (82) Many people think that farmed fish is environmentally more benign. But there is yet one more parallel between aquaculture and factory farms—enormous waste problems. The caged salmon grown in Scotland, for example, contaminate Scottish coastal waters with an amount of untreated waste equivalent to that produced by 8 million people. (83) Yet the entire human population of Scotland is itself barely more than 5 million. And it’s not just salmon. In the last few decades, the growth of high-intensity manmade shrimp farms has been staggering. In Ecuador, for example, 500,000 acres have been given over to shrimp farms, with 80 percent of the shrimp exported, more than half going to the United States. The costs of this growth, however, have been equally staggering, including coastal pollution, the displacement of local people from their land, and the clearing of large tracts of coastal mangrove forests. Mangrove forests are the breeding grounds for countless species of fish, and when they are replaced by shrimp farms, offshore fish catches plummet. There were originally 1,250,000 acres of mangrove forests in the Philippines. Today, only 90,000 acres remain, the rest having been converted into shrimp farms producing for foreign markets. So great is the ecological destruction caused by fish farming, particularly of shrimp, that a 2000 report published in the New Internationalist compared the environmental damage caused by fish farming to that caused by replacing tropical rainforests with cattle ranches. (84) The point, of course, is to produce more food for people to eat. But intensive shrimp and prawn industries typically locate in areas that have traditionally grown rice—the primary staple for most of the world’s people. With every new shrimp pond, rice paddies are lost, and with them, food for local people. (85) So far, the fish farming industry is following directly in the footsteps of the livestock industries, feeding primarily the rich at the expense of the planet, the animals, and the poor. As Jean-Michel Cousteau writes, “(Aquaculture) means that we are taking vast amounts of small fish that form the basis of the poor person’s diet in the oceanic world and using them to produce one large fish that is enjoyed primarily by the upper echelons in industrial nations.” (86) Meanwhile, 22 million tons of wild fish were used by the livestock industry for pig and cow feed in 1997. (87) That is a figure greater than the combined weight of the entire human population of the United States. May All Be Fed

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” (Anatole France)

Reversing the spread of hunger is one of humanity’s paramount challenges. It will mean overcoming the fatalistic belief that chronic, persistent hunger is inevitable. It will mean reversing the trend toward ever greater concentration of wealth in ever-fewer hands. It will mean building our lives upon the certainty that all humanity is connected. When humanity finally sheds the onerous and degrading specter of starvation, it will be because we have decided not to treat food, and the resources needed to produce it, just like any other commodity, but have come to see food as a basic and universal human right. It will be because we have found ways to stabilize our numbers and to heal the planet’s deeply injured life-support systems. It will be because we have realized that only when none of us fears hunger can any of us truly find peace. And it will be because we have returned to the efficiency of a plant-based diet, making it possible for more people to eat. It is increasingly obvious that environmentally sustainable solutions to world hunger can only emerge as people eat more plant foods and fewer animal products. To me it is deeply moving that the same food choices that give us the best chance to eliminate world hunger are also those that take the least toll on the environment, contribute the most to our long-term health, are the safest, and are also far and away the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures. Reversing the spread of hunger will mean learning to create a world based on cooperation and on the affirmation of the human spirit. It will mean organizing our societies in ways that assure every person the chance to live a healthy and productive life in harmony with Nature. It will mean examining all of our public policies and personal lifestyles in the light of our desire to touch as many people as possible with a message of hope for a better world.

“The day that hunger is eradicated from the Earth there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of that great revolution.” (Frederico Garcia Lorca)

Editor's Note: Continue to Genetic Engineering, Part I References: 55. Brown, “Facing Reality.” 56. Pauly, Daniel, et al., “Fishing Down Marine Food Webs,” Science, February 6, 1998, pp. 860–3. 57. Egan, Timothy, “U.S. Fishing Fleet Trawling Coastal Water Without Fish,” New York Times, March 7, 1994, A-1. 58. Ayres, God’s Last Offer, pp. 109–10. 59. Bogo, Jennifer, “Brain Food,” E, July/August 2000, p. 42. 60. “Fishy Business,” New Internationalist, July 2000, p. 11. 61. “Oceans Without Fish,” Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, February 26, 1998. 62. “Monoculture: The Biological and Social Impacts,” WorldWatch, March/April 1998, p. 39. 63. Ibid. 64. Holt, S., “The Food Resources of the Ocean,” Scientific American 221 (1969):178–94. 65. “Oceans Without Fish.” 66. Cheeke, Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture, p. 205. 67. “Tyson Foods Target of Corruption Case,” Feedstuffs, June 30, 1997. 68. Feedstuffs, Janury 5, 1998, p. 1. 69. St. Clair, Jeffrey, “Fishy Business,” In These Times, May 26, 1997, pp. 14–6, 36. 70. Stevens, William, “Man Moves Down the Marine Food Chain, Creating Havoc,” New York Times, February 10, 1998, C3. See also Pauly, et al., “Fishing Down Marine Food Webs,” pp. 860–3. 71. Suzuki, David, and Dressel, Holly, From Naked Ape to Superspecies (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1999), p. 19. 72. Suzuki and Dressel, From Naked Ape to Superspecies, pp. 20–1. 73. Brown, “Fish Farming May Overtake Cattle.” 74. “The Facts of Fishing,” New Internationalist, July 2000, p. 19. 75. McGinn, Anne Platt, “Blue Revolution—The Promises and Pitfalls of Fish Farming,” WorldWatch, March/April 1998, pp. 10–9. 76. Naylor, R., et al., “Effect of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies,” Nature, June 29, 2000. 77. Ibid. 78. Atlantic Salmon in Short Supply, BBC News Online, May 31, 2000. 79. “Fishy Business,” p. 11. 80. McGinn, “Blue Revolution,” pp. 10–9. 81. Simopoulos, A. P., and N. Salem, Jr., “N-3 Fatty Acids in Eggs from Range-Fed Greek Chickens,” New England Journal of Medicine (1989):1412; Crawford, M., “Fatty-Acid Ratios in Free-Living and Domestic Animals,” Lancet 1 (1968): 1329–33; Simopoulos, Artemis, and Robinson, Jo, The Omega Diet (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), pp. 24–36; Robinson, Jo, Why Grassfed Is Best (Vashon, WA: Vashon Island Press, 2000). 82. “Farmed fish may be hazardous to your health,” news release from the David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver, BC, January 3, 2001. 83. “Fishy Business,” p. 11. 84. “Facts of Fishing,” p. 19. 85. “White Gold: The Social and Ecological Consequences of High-Intensity Shrimp Farming,” E, May/June 2000, p. 11. 86. Cousteau, Jean-Michel, “Salmon Farming: The Great Fish Escape,” Los Angeles Times Syndicate, October 16, 2000. 87. Naylor, et al., “Effect of Aquaculture.”

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  • Posted on Nov. 25, 2007. Listed in:

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