Change in Incentives

For governments interested in being ahead of the pack in promoting ecological meat and seafood farms, the biggest priority is changing the major financial incentives they give to farmers and fishers. Right now, most subsidies keep farming and fishing mired in the status quo of destructive production. For instance, governments give farmers nearly $300 billion each year to grow a handful of commodities like corn and soybeans, which not only encourages chemical use and discourages diversity on the farm—since farms get paid based on how much of these crops they harvest—it also brings down the prices of these crops and turns corn and soybeans into a very cheap way to fatten animals.24

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group reports that direct subsidies for livestock between 1995 and 2005 totaled $2.9 billion in the United States alone. During the same time, corn and soybean pro-ducers—who provide, in effect, the fuel for confined animal feeding operations—received approximately $50 billion and $13 billion respectively.25

The estimated $30-40 billion in fisheries subsidies each year goes mainly to low-interest loans to replace old boats with more powerful, newer ones, to fishing port development, and to payoffs from wealthy nations that wish to gain access to the fishing grounds of poorer countries. As one historic analysis of fisheries subsidies noted, "in the 1950s and 1960s, the more boat-building subsidies you gave, the more fish you got." But since more than two thirds of ocean fisheries are now fully exploited, continued subsidies mean that too many fishers are going after too few fish.26

Meat and Seafood: The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients

As Daniel Pauly of the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia notes, the public pays for these subsidies with tax dollars and is rewarded with cheaper fish only in the short term. As in agriculture, the wealthiest nations and the largest boats reap most of the benefits: the United States, the European Union, and Japan account for 75-85 percent of fisheries subsidies.27

In both farming and fishing, subsidy reform does not have to mean fewer jobs and less food.

Because this support structure favors larger, less diverse, more capital-intensive operations, the prevailing policy actually discourages more diverse and humane livestock farms and less destructive fishing operations.

Subsidies have proved particularly resistant to reform as the recipients have amassed political clout on a par with the payouts they receive. But a first approach would be to go after the most egregious subsidies, including fuel subsidies for fishing fleets. Ships that have to travel farther to find fish gobble up tremendous amounts of energy keeping the fish cool on the long trips back to shore. In 2000, fisheries around the world burned about 13 billion gallons of fuel to catch 80 million tons of fish. In other words, the world's fleets use about 12.5 times as much energy to catch fish as the fish provide to those who eat them.28

Consider bottom trawling. Dragging a net across the ocean bottom has been likened to clearcutting a forest in search of squirrels and chipmunks. Such fishing is energy-intensive and destroys habitat, including sensitive deep-sea areas that can harbor future populations of fish. Governments still give bottom trawlers about $152 million in subsidies. That is about 25 percent of the total value of the boats' catch, even though this fleet only yields about 10 percent of the catch in profits. In other words, the subsidies are the only reason fishers are still using the technique.29

Or consider subsidies in many developing nations that either directly or indirectly favor raising exotic breeds of animals. The Farm Animal Genetic Resources Division of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that subsidies for veterinary drugs can encourage raising animals that are not suited to particular climates or that have resistance to certain pests. But if these subsidies were removed and replaced with compensation for farmers who raised their animals outdoors on grass or who worked to conserve rare breeds, the environmental and public health benefits could be wide-ranging.30

In both farming and fishing, subsidy reform does not have to mean fewer jobs and less food. Redirecting subsidies that go to the largest operations can actually create more jobs, since small livestock farms and fishing vessels both employ more people per unit of food harvested. A study in Norway found that small-scale fisheries generate five times as many jobs per unit of landed value as large-scale ones. Small-scale fishers are also likely to use more selective and less destructive fishing practices—catching tuna with handlines, for instance, instead of long lines that snag sharks and seabirds or using passive traps to only catch certain fish instead of dragging, which kills everything in the net.31 And despite the fears of farmers and governments that eliminating subsidies would destroy agriculture, farmers and agribusiness can actually thrive with zero subsidies. In New Zealand, in 1984 a newly elected government stopped paying farmers for growing crops and raising animals. It was a shock to rural communities. But instead of destroying them, production of milk quadrupled.32

Without subsidies for fuel and grain, New Zealand dairy farms have turned to nurturing

Meat and Seafood:The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients the nation's abundant pasture. Farmers shifted away from Jersey cows, with milk rich in but-terfat, to larger Friesians, which provide more protein-rich milk. A "Kiwi cross" of the two breeds resulted in a higher-protein milk in a more compact, hardier animal. Today, cows in New Zealand cost less to feed and yield more milk solids, making them more profitable. Sheep farmers also responded, reducing their huge herds of mostly small and fatty lambs, importing breeds from Finland and Denmark to improve the fertility of their ewes, and producing larger, leaner lambs that were both less expensive to raise and more appealing to health-conscious consumers.33 In other cases, subsidies can help jumpstart a completely different regulation of the oceans. Some maritime nations, including Belgium, Canada, China, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, are beginning to shift their fisheries subsidies toward establishing marine reserves in which a swath of ocean is made off-limits to any fishing.34 In contrast to the current system, which regulates fish species by species and which sets sometimes controversial limits on how much of each can be caught in a given time, marine reserves do not require expensive data collection programs in order to gain a detailed understanding of the fish stock. Nature manages itself; the entire ecosystem gets protection rather than just one species, and fish have a safe place to get big, spawn, and produce young fish that migrate out of the preserve. Evidence shows that fish populations recover rapidly in such reserves and that nearby fish catches and sizes increase dramatically after a reserve is set up.35

A recent study estimated that establishing reserves for all the world's major fisheries would cost $5-19 billion each year and create about 1 million jobs. Beyond increasing the fish catch, these reserves make ideal centers for tourism and help restore coral reefs, mangroves, and other ocean ecosystems, yielding other benefits to society. Delegates at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the 2003 World Parks Congress called for the establishment of a global system of marine protected areas, and scientists estimate that making just 20 percent of the oceans off-limits to fishing would be sufficient. Today only 1 percent of the world's ocean area is currently protected.36

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