Food ethics and seafood caveats

In my previous post, I talked about my enthusiasm for seafood, did a recipe for a Sicilian fish stew and talked about how useful I’m finding Alan Davidson’s book Mediterranean Seafood as I not only try to improve my seafood cookery, but also learn at least a few of the innumerable Italian names for fish etc. The recipe was very nearly accompanied by a caveat and some discussion of the ethics of eating seafood, but the entry would have just become too unwieldy.

So I’m doing it here instead.

My personal dietary inclinations are more towards fish and some seafood (love prawns and cephapods; not so keen on bivalves) over red meat, for example. For a while I was a vegetarian, a conversion that came as a result of living for five months at Newton Livery, a decidedly idiosyncratic small farm in New Zealand, learning that hey, eating without meat really isn’t that hard, and then coming home to the UK and pretty much immediately seeing a documentary on TV about the vile barbarism of intensive pig farming.

The imagery of a sow and her litter, struggling on a metal grill floor, in a dirty, confined space, brought about a minor epiphany. Mankind does not need to mistreat beasts through such husbandry when there are alternatives. And especially not animals like pigs, which are intelligent as dogs – an animal that people in the UK and here in Italy sentimentalise and anthropomorphise like there’s no tomorrow. Sheep – considerably more stupid – at least get to live outside.

I saw that documentary, and went vegetarian, in 1989, when the worst of the post-war intensification of food production in the UK was in no way balanced for the consumer by the option of free range and organic (or biologico as it’s know here in Italy), then the purview of a limited population of hippies and industry outsiders. Of course, I was fairly ignorant – I still ate dairy, blithe about the fact that its production is part and parcel of meat production, but at least I’d made an ethical step. Our obsession with meat consumption remains questionable, even in an era of less unethical alternatives like free range and organic for the simple fact of the calorific equation. To feed up beef cattle, for example, for the most part involves giving them considerably more calories in maize and other crops than the resulting meat gives the consumer in calories. And the more calories we use to produce food, the more extreme the environmental downsides – for example, in the fossil fuels used to transport those feed crops.

It’s an equation that most people, even the nominally ethical consumers, are oblivious to. It’s a particular problem in the early 21st century when developing world nations – China, India, etc– are rapidly embracing the kind of untenable red meat-based diets favoured by many Europeans and North Americans, hence the advent of the kind monstrously factory-style meat production exemplified by feed lots and Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs), something that they are currently trying to popularise in the UK. Ethical issues aside, mega-ranch style farming just does not suit a small nation like the UK, where we’ve already seen biodiversity reduced markedly through the tearing out of traditional field boundaries, notably in places like East Anglia where the flatter landscape enables ranch-style farming. (And unlike in places like Devon, where the hillier terrain is at least preserving some aspects of Britain’s traditional plagioclimax environments, shaped by centuries of human intervention.)

There’s also the issue of methane – a natural gas produced in decomposition and in flatulence that’s also a potent greenhouse gas. Hence it’s a no brainer that the bigger our herds of cattle, the more the farting, the bigger the problem.

If you can’t face reading about such issues, I would recommend watching the feature documentary Food, Inc., which, in unsensationalist terms, evaluates the problems of these types of meat production, in both health and environmental terms.

Now I’m still a culprit, as a decade plus with my red-meat obsessive wife has re-calibrated both our diets somewhat – she eats less meat, I eat some – but I’d like to think we pursue a diet that’s at least nominally less unsustainable in planetary terms, eating locally produced food as much as possible, relying on pulses and grains – directly, rather than feeding them to animals to fatten them for meat. And only eating meat or fish a few times a week. While we have now been able to source some less unethical meat (locally bred, smaller scale, some free range or organic) in Rome via the two big weekend farmers’ markets at the Circo Massimo and in the Testaccio Ex Mattatoio, it’s hard to get a sense of how sustainably sourced any of the fish on the market or in restaurants is. Not very, I suspect.

Although I agonise (clearly) over food ethics, the question of seafood is something that has long confused me to boot. In contrast to animal husbandry, where an animal is bread specifically and living a life controlled by man, there are very different ethical issues at play in our consumption of the majority of seafood still. Notably for the simple fact that we are pillaging the oceans for food, exploiting a natural resource. (I don’t want to go into fish farming here, but suffice to say it’s not an easy solution – it’s potentially polluting, and like meat production involves a ridiculous calorific equation, where to produce say 1kg of salmon, at least 2.5kg of so-called forage fish, anchovies, herring, sardines etc, are required. Personally, I’d rather eat the sardines direct.)

Such exploitation was fine, arguably, prior to the human population explosion that accompanied the industrial revolution in Western nations and the comparable transition being undergone now by developing world nations. But today, everything we do is on such an vast scale it becomes untenable. It’s would be untenable for everyone on the planet to have a large personal vehicle and large air-conditioned house; but if one nation can live like that, who’s to say another cannot? Likewise it would be untenable for everyone – all seven-plus billion of us – to have eggs or bacon for breakfast and a steak for dinner. And likewise, if one nation eats an endangered tuna and insists it’s a traditional diet, who is anyone else to suggest they don’t, you know, fish it to extinction. Us Brits, for example, really really cannot get our heads around the fact that cod is anything other than readily available, always and forever. But there are major concerns over Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), but it’s long been on Greenpeace’s Red List.

So to get to the point I was thinking about when I started this, as much as I like Davidson’s book, it’s very out of date, and oblivious to questions of sustainability. He even suggests tracking down dried dolphin meat at one point, in the form of a Genoese delicacy called musciame, dried dolphin meat. Now, if a marine creature is killed as bycatch, I’d rather it was actually eaten than thrown back dead, something that’s admirably being forced into the spotlight by the Fish Fight campaign, but I still find it difficult to consider eating dolphins, having grown up in the era of Save the Wale, knowing that dolphins are considerably smarter than fish (though does that mean they have any more or less right to life?), and having enjoying watching them in the wild, in NZ’s Bay of Islands.

Anyway, again to try and get to the soddin’ point: if, like me, you like eating fish and seafood, and live somewhere where there’s information about fish stocks, please check first before you choose what to use. The beast on the slab might be dead already, but if you change your habits, that’s one way of getting the message across the fisheries industries, by way of your fishmonger. If you have such a thing; if you only shop in supermarkets, look for the labelling, or indeed re-consider which supermarket you shop from, after looking at Greenpeace’s league table (no longer online).

Greenpeace also produces its Red List of threatened marine species. While in the UK, the Marine Stewardship Council produces a buyer’s guideto sustainable seafood. Also, if you live in the UK, Fish 2 Fork rates restaurants for the sustainability of the fish they use. (Not any more.)

I’m finding it hard to find information about sustainable fish here in Italy though. I’ve only lived here seven months, so I don’t want to display too much ignorance on this matter, but the country as a whole, despite being the home of the Slow Food movement, sadly doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of sustainability in, for example, meat production and fisheries. My Italian isn’t great, but it doesn’t look like Greenpeace Italia has a Red List or equivalent for Mediterranean fisheries. Broadly, the Med is notorious for the extreme exploitation it suffers.

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t eat any tuna or swordfish and haven’t for years, a principle solidified by watching the documentary The End of the Line. But I probably should go further than that. It’s a difficult challenge: balancing my enthusiasm for cooking and eating seafood with approaching food with at least a modicum of ethical consideration.

Quick edition 17 April

A friend posted this article on Facebook. It’s very pertinent, not just because Britain is experiencing a drought but also because of the wider value of water – and how it’s squandered in meat production. Eg “It takes, on average, 15,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef. To put this in context, that is the equivalent of 50 baths of water to produce one steak – 15 times more water than is needed to produce one kilogram of wheat. To produce the diet of a typical meat-eater takes the equivalent of 5,000 litres of water per day…”

I would like such pieces to have links to sources, as the writer is the manager of the PETA Foundation so obviously have a very specific and very ardent agenda, but it’s still noteworthy. (Really, the argument that ‘everyone should turn vegan to save the world’ just isn’t going to wash. Instead, the message should be one of providing sufficient information and education to chivvy people in the direction of more ethical choices, and a more holistic understanding of the repecussions of everyday decisions.)



Filed under Discussion, Food misc, Main thread, Rome

4 responses to “Food ethics and seafood caveats

  1. Dom

    Well written that man, enjoyed the rant. Also good to keep the subject alive and to the forefront.

  2. Sue Kavanagh

    Damn right. Don’t be shocked by me agreeing with you. But back in the day (before you knew me) I gave up meat for 4.5 years because of intensive farming. I know I love meat – always have and always will – but it feels totally wrong to eat meat or fish 2 or 3 times a day. It’s a treat and should be rationed as such. It’s a constant battle, but the older I get, the easier it is. I guess it’s down to knowing more about how amazing vegetables taste.

  3. Daniel

    And also about not wasting whatever meat you do buy and cook – don’t just eat the breasts of the chicken and bin the rest for example. Risotto, pie, stock, etc. It seems obvious, but a lot of people just don’t realise how far a single chicken can go, how many (economical) meals it can produce.

  4. Pingback: Sardinian holiday – dinners and despair | Bread, Cakes And Ale

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