Farm-raised fish is feeding our growing population, but comes with a price
Think about the last time you ate seafood. Where did it come from? How was it raised?
If you’re not sure, the odds are what was on your plate came from a fish farm. More than 50% of all seafood produced for human consumption is now farm-raised, and, by 2030, this number is expected to climb to nearly 75%.
The debate over wild-caught versus farm-raised fish is ongoing and controversial, with merits to both sides of the argument. But as the prevalence of fish farms continues to grow, and we are finding it on our plates more and more often, we must ask ourselves: what does this mean for our health? And what does it mean for our planet?
In the last 50 years, global meat consumption has more than quadrupled: skyrocketing from 70 million tons to nearly 310 million tons.
The reason for the dramatic increase? First of all, there are more people. In 1960, there were about 3 billion of us. The global population stands at 7 billion today, and that number will grow to 9.7 billion by 2050.
Next, the global middle class is on the rise. And in the societies where incomes have risen, so has protein consumption.
This is all leading to an ever-growing demand for animal protein that is so great, experts estimate that by 2050 we will need at least 70% more protein than what is available to us today.
How will we meet that challenge? How will we find enough food to feed everyone?
Today, the ocean serves as our main source of animal production. More than a billion people across the world rely on fish as their main source of protein.
But at the same time, our global fisheries are operating at 2 to 3 times the rate than what our oceans can sustainably support — meaning that we are taking far more fish out of the ocean than can be naturally replaced.
According to the World Wildlife Fund:
Even with the growing number of sustainable fishing initiatives being launched throughout the world, the problem is still unresolved — we are depleting our oceans of a natural resource beyond the point of no return. And this is not only creating ecological chaos, but economic distress as well. Just look at Newfoundland in Canada. For hundreds of years, the cod stocks in the area seemed inexhaustible. But in 1992, overfishing caused the cod fishery to collapse. Nearly 40,000 people lost their jobs as a result. And more than 20 years later, the cod population has still not recovered.
Imagine this collapse on a global level. Imagine what it would do — to our planet, to our economy, and to the billions of people who rely on our oceans for sustenance.
Fish farms could provide a viable and sustainable solution.
Fish farming, or aquaculture, would allow us to produce enough animal protein to meet the growing demand. Raising fish also requires less energy and resources that cows: while it takes 8 to 9 pounds of feed and 8000 liters of fish to produce 1 pound of meat, it takes just 1 pound of feed to produce 1 pound of fish. Fish are highly resource-efficient animals. (For more about animal production, see our article: Why food technology is the next big thing.)
Yes, from a surface level, aquaculture seems like the answer. Fish farms could potentially provide a sustainable food source for the growing population and prevent the wild fish populations from collapse. But the irony is that fish farming often comes at a surprising cost to wild fish populations.
“A lot of countries could use more protein, and aquaculture is a good way to get there,” says Rosamond Naylor, an economist at the Stanford Institute for International Studies.
But the problem, she explains, is that sustaining farm-raised salmon, shrimp and other carnivorous species requires a disproportionate amount of wild fish. That’s because certain farmed fish are fed processed fish meal made from wild caught herring, mackerel and sardine.
Naylor estimates that it requires about two pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed fish.
Commercial fish farms also take up thousands of square miles of the aquatic ecosystem, displacing natural breeding habits. And confining so many fish in such close quarters has led to massive amounts of pollution and disease that can kill or harm wild fish, birds and marine mammals.
Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering a proposal to construct a massive commercial fish farm 4.5 miles off the coast of San Diego. The farm would be able to produce 5,000 metric tons of fish each year, making it the largest commercial operation in the country.
Experts warn, however, that the San Diego fish farm would discharge the waste of 11 million pounds of fish directly into ocean waters, contributing to toxic algal blooms that have already been causing harm across the California coast. The project would also lead to an increase in vessel traffic that would pose serious challenges for a number of different species, including the endangered blue whale and leatherback sea turtle.
Farmed fish have also been shown to escape their pens, spreading sea lice and other diseases to the wild populations. And when they interbreed with wild fish, they can alter the genetic code, diluting their natural survival skills.
Consumers’ personal health has also been considered, as there are a number of concerns about the potential hazards of farmed fish on the human body.
Standard fish farming practices, which include the use of contaminated fishmeal and the intentional fattening of farmed stock, have proven to drive down the nutritional quality of the fish and drive up the contamination levels.
In the largest study of pollutants in salmon, researchers found high levels of carcinogenic pesticides (polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and two other organochlorine compounds, dieldrin and toxaphene) in farm-raised fish.
Organochlorines damage the endocrine system, immune system and brain. And, once consumed, these toxic compounds are stored in body fat, where they can remain for decades, and even be passed to a fetus during pregnancy or to a baby through breast milk.
Levels of contamination were highest in European-farmed salmon, followed by those from North America.
In China, environmental degradation has led to water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. To deal with the toxic waters, farmers have dealt with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive, yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood.
This is particularly worrisome given the fact that China produces 70% of the farmed fish in the world. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only inspects about 2% of imported seafood.￼
Credit: Dr. George Pararas-Carayannis
The truth is daunting: Between the lack of transparency around farmed fish and the documented use of excessive chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics — which contaminate our food and our environment – it is clear that something is amiss. And the future of our ocean’s natural resources looks bleak.
But if we want to initiate real change, we must made different decisions. We need to take pressure off of the ocean. We need to eat clean, healthy food that we can trust. And if we choose to eat an animal, it must be one that was treated with respect and compassion.
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