Moving Down the Industrial Food Chain

For the poor, whose diets might be confined to starchy staple crops, meat and seafood bring both increased status and added nutrition. For the wealthy, a meal is not complete unless it includes chicken, pork, or beef, while health-conscious consumers often replace the traditional meat serving with tuna, sword-fish, or some other seafood. But consumers need to rethink their relationship with all these foods in order to keep them on the menus in fine restaurants as well as on the plates of people in the developing world.

Under this new food paradigm, people will need to reconsider the place of meat in their diets. Raising animals outdoors on grass will necessarily mean that there are fewer of them to eat, and higher prices for sustainably and humanely raised meat will mean shifting this from the center of each meal. The same is true for seafood. Fish, especially the big, carnivorous species, will not be as readily available, and consumers will have to eat

Meat and Seafood: The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients fewer of them and more of certain other fish. Chefs, large food buyers, and consumers will need to explore less well known fish species and choose seafood that is lower on the marine food chain.

Many consumers are giving up meat altogether as the health and environmental benefits of doing so become clearer. And it is becoming easier to obtain meat alternatives. Researchers at the Vrije University of Amsterdam, for example, are developing alternative meats based on peas and other legumes that are highly nutritious, extremely economical, easy to prepare, and—perhaps most important—tasty. And consumer perception of these products has been positive, especially when people learn more about how their meat is raised and the ecological impact of raising animals in a densely populated nation like the Netherlands.47

Slow Food offers an alternative to fast-food culture by celebrating regional cuisines, distinct crop varieties, and forgotten food traditions.

While the growth of industrial meat and seafood production is likely inevitable in the developing world, livestock producers and fishers everywhere have an opportunity to improve meat and seafood. When it comes to producing meat, eggs, milk, and seafood, bigger does not necessarily mean better—or even more profitable.

For both meat and seafood, eating lower on the food chain generally reduces the harm done by these products. In the case of fish, the smaller, herbivorous species (shellfish, anchovies, catfish, and tilapia) are less endangered and fished in a less destructive way than the larger, carnivorous species (tuna, sword-fish, and shark). For meat, eating fewer animal products in general and eating eggs, beef, pork, and chicken from animals raised on a natural diet of grass is healthier for people, for the animals, and for the environment.

Many of the innovations that will reduce the ecological burden of meat and seafood can also help make these foods more available to poorer communities. Adding fish ponds to rice paddies and coastal agriculture is an easy way to boost a farmer's income and dietary options. Setting up no-fish zones around coral reefs and spawning grounds boosts the fish catch for both rich and poor fishers. And while cows or pigs bred for industrial-scale production may not thrive in poor areas where farmers cannot provide feed and veterinary inputs, hardier, indigenous breeds may be the best hope for adding milk and eggs to the local diet.

Rather than burden consumers with lengthy lists of "good" and "bad" food, a group called Slow Food International has tried to give seafood lovers, as a start, some basic rules of thumb that depend on a more holistic understanding of what is happening in the oceans. With a membership that includes 100,000 people in more than 80 nations, Slow Food offers an alternative to fast-food culture by celebrating regional cuisines, distinct crop varieties, and forgotten food traditions.48

The organization held a meeting in 2007 called Slow Fish that brought together small-scale fishers, chefs, and seafood companies to suggest how people could continue enjoying seafood without compromising responsibility. Participants called for support of "small-scale inshore fishing and ancient methods of fishing, processing and preserving which are sustainable and produce outstanding products that form part of our cultural identity." They urged people to eat fish lower on the food chain—such as the smaller, spinier fish that have long been part of Mediterranean cui-sine—and to support traditional, low-impact

Meat and Seafood:The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients types of fish farming, such as oyster farming and low-density freshwater pool systems.49 In Peru, several marine scientists have taken this message to heart and have launched a campaign to change the image of the anchoveta from something that only poor people eat to a fish that could be turned into a gourmet item consumed by connoisseurs. The Peruvian anchovy accounts for about one tenth of the wild fish netted around the globe each year. And yet nearly all of these small fish—chock full of the same beneficial fatty acids found in tuna, salmon and other big fish—get ground into fish meal and fish oil that will be used to fatten pigs and chickens in factory farms in North America, Europe, Japan, and other areas.50

As part of Discover the Anchovy Week in 2006, some 18,000 people tasted anchovies at 30 restaurants in Lima. Fresh anchovies are now available in many of the nation's markets, and the government is supplying the fish as part of its hunger programs. Researchers estimate that Peru could employ many more people and generate 10 times the revenues if the high-volume, low-value fishmeal industry were retooled to carefully package the anchovy as a fresh fish for local consumption and export.51

Part of the global impact of this gastronomic shift is that it would make much better use of beleaguered fish populations. "We can still savor seared ahi and grilled swordfish steaks—they have the best meat and few bones, after all—but we must reserve them as a luxury product," notes Martin Hall, chief scientist of the Dolphin Tuna Program at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. He explains that "it takes close to 60 million metric tons of potentially edible fish per year to feed the three million metric tons of the three major tropical tuna species we harvest annually. If we could replace some of our tuna sandwiches with the anchovies, sar dines, squids, and other species the tuna eat, we would open up a substantial supply of protein that could feed millions more."52

In Japan, recent reductions in tuna catch quotas and soaring prices have prompted sushi chefs and home cooks in this fish-loving nation to search for substitutes. The Japanese consume about three quarters of the world's annual tuna catch. As the New York Times reported in the summer of 2007, Tadashi Yamagata, vice chairman of Japan's national union of sushi chefs, has been experimenting with tuna alternatives at Miyakozushi, his family's busy lunchtime restaurant in Tokyo. His most successful substitutes were ideas he "reverse imported" from American sushi bars, like "smoked duck with mayonnaise and crushed daikon with sea urchin."53

Other groups, like Heritage Foods USA, encourage customers to eat antique or heritage breeds of cows, pigs, chickens, and other foods in order to save them from extinction. The most well-known example is the turkey variety known as Bourbon Reds. These birds were almost extinct because of industrial farming practices that favor fast-growing but flavorless, big-breasted birds. Such birds are raised on factory farms, are never allowed to mate (they reproduce by artificial insemination), and are pumped full of antibiotics. But thanks to a consumer awareness campaign promoting the hearty, distinctive flavor of Bourbon Reds, these birds are in high demand—last year Heritage Foods sold 3,000 Bourbon Reds in the United States for Thanksgiving—and more and more farmers are raising them.54

In the developing world, groups such as GRAIN and the League for Pastoral Peoples are working hard to ensure that livestock genetic diversity is on the agenda of policymakers worldwide. Corporate agribusinesses, says GRAIN, have "dramatically increased

Meat and Seafood: The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients their control over the livestock industry in recent years," and this makes the food system "dangerously dependent on a few corporations and a vulnerable, narrowing genetic base." The group also warns that the vast knowledge attained by livestock keepers over millennia is quickly disappearing and that there is an urgent need for pastoralists and livestock keepers to "reclaim their rights."55 Such a historical view is useful. Meat and seafood have long been a part of the human diet, but the form they take has changed as wild populations of fish have waxed and waned, as hunted game gave way to domesticated livestock, and as human desires and culinary fads shifted and spread. The meat of sharks was not in wide demand until recently, for example, when shark fin soup—an ancient Chinese dish that can cost $200 a bowl and was once reserved for the kitchens of the wealthy—became a more common menu item in economically booming China. The roaring market in these fins, which can fetch $700 a kilogram and entice shark hunters from as far away as Ecuador, is driving the killing of roughly 100 million sharks each year and the extinction of most major shark species.56

As part of a recent shark awareness campaign, the conservation group WildAid released several graphic videos of sharks being "finned" that were later aired on television in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The group also features Asian celebrities like film director Ang Lee and Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian in public service announcements asking people not to eat shark fin soup. These efforts seem to be paying off. Both Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines pulled shark fin soup from their first-class services in 2000, for instance. And in late 2005, several high-profile institutions in Hong Kong, including Disneyland and Hong Kong University, stopped serving shark fin soup following protests by animal rights and marine conservation groups.57

Following their lead would mean breaking with long-standing tradition, but it is not unprecedented. Stark white veal flesh has become a symbol of cruel caging techniques, while "rosey veal" from calves allowed to walk with their mothers is now showing up on menus. Savvy seafood processors are starting to favor wild harvested shrimp over shrimp raised on patches of deforested mangroves. Shark fins, like so many ecologically taxing food items that the planet can tolerate only on a small scale, are something people will need to give up.58

But we know that not all meat and seafood is created equal. And innovative farmers, fishers, and food companies have already shown that providing safe, tasty, and humane food does not have to cost our health and the environment so much.


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