Eating and the Environment

Stephen DeAngelis

November 4, 2009

I thought that a good way to end the current series of posts about food security was to provide readers with some information about how their own eating habits could help in the effort to secure the food chain and save the planet. In a post entitled A Rose by Any Other Name Might Smell as Sweet, but Would It Sell? Consider the Slimehead, I wrote about the plight of world’s fisheries and how they are being overfished. In another post entitled The Not So Infinite Sea, I touched on the fact that some nations are having difficulty figuring out how to regulate coastal waters to protect fisheries. Since the greed of the fishing industry and the indecisiveness of government regulators are failing to protect fisheries, environmentalists are hoping that consumers will play a crucial role in saving them [“Good for the oceans, good for you,” by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, 20 October 2009]. Eilperin writes:

“Many savvy consumers are familiar with the color codes that marine conservationists bestow on fish and shellfish, depending on how they’re faring in the environment: red for avoid, yellow for consume sparingly and green for eat without guilt. Now, super green has arrived. … The influential Monterey Bay Aquarium is releasing a new set of rankings that identifies fish that are not only fished sustainably but are also rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, a key dietary component in reducing the risk of heart disease. Farmed mussels and oysters make the list, along with line- or pole-caught albacore tuna, wild-caught Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines.”

The hope, of course, is that if consumers stop buying endangered fish species the fishing industry will get the message and start harvesting fish in a more sustainable way. Environmentalists know that consumers can make a difference because the scare of mercury poisoning changed people’s consumption of swordfish. Eilperin continues:

“Monterey Bay’s ‘Super Green’ list (at http://www.seafoodwatch.org/health) does not calculate the relative health benefits and risks of eating a specific type of fish, but features species with high levels of omega-3 acids and relatively low contaminant levels. Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School who consulted on the new seafood rankings, noted that eating an average of one serving of salmon a week provides enough omega-3 fatty acids to lower the risk of heart disease by 36 percent. … Tim Fitzgerald, a fisheries policy specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund (which also provided data for the new rankings), said they would help answer the questions Americans are raising as they scrutinize the fish they eat. ‘Now more than ever, consumers are concerned with the health and environmental impacts of their seafood choices,’ Fitzgerald said. The list is not the first consumer-oriented ranking to include human and ocean health in a single category. The nonprofit SeaWeb publishes a KidSafe Seafood guide that applies similar criteria and includes northern U.S. and Canadian shrimp and fresh tilapia (http://www.kidsafeseafood.org/bestchoices.php).”

The challenge, of course, is getting the information to the consumers and then ensuring that they act on it. Restaurants and markets that sell endangered fish species certainly aren’t going to provide that information at the point of sale. Eilperin continues:

“Although the average consumer might assume that it’s better for the environment to buy wild-caught fish than their cultivated counterparts, that’s not always the case. Farmed rainbow trout scored high on the list, along with farmed Arctic char and bay scallops. Shellfish farmed in the ocean actually filter plankton from seawater for food, leaving the ocean cleaner as a result, and unlike species such as salmon, they don’t consume other fish. Both oysters and mussels are low in fat, and oysters are high in zinc. The aquarium’s list is part of a broader report, ‘Turning the Tide: The State of Seafood,’ which chronicles how threats such as overfishing and climate change threaten the sea. But it also says there is a growing consensus on how best to manage fisheries, and it suggests that pressure from consumers, major seafood buyers and the seafood industry to improve that management could reverse the ocean’s decline.”

Eating fewer endangered fish is not the only way that consumers can help save fish populations. Another way they could help is by eating more predatory fish [“Eat for the ecosystem,” The Economist, 17 October 2009]. The article focuses on a particular fish — the pretty, but greedy and poisonous, red lionfish.

“A single [red lionfish], introduced into a coral reef where the species is not native, can reduce the number of other small fish by 80% in just a few weeks, according to Mark Hixon, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. To make matters worse, lion fish are top predators. Though their size would make them an easy mouthful for a shark or a grouper, their poisonous spines mean they are more or less invulnerable. In the lionfish’s native waters, the western Pacific Ocean, the local ecosystem has adjusted to such predatory behaviour. In the Caribbean, though, the lionfish is a novelty—and a destructive one. Anything that damages the biodiversity of the reefs in diving resorts is bad for tourism, so in some countries, such as Mexico and Belize, people have tried introducing bounties payable to divers who catch lionfish. Sadly, there are too many lionfish about, and the bounties have proved too expensive to sustain. But there may be an answer: prove that the lionfish is not in fact a top predator after all, by getting people to eat it.”

The question you are surely asking is: “How do they taste?” According to Sean Dimin, one of the owners of a firm called Sea to Table who came up with this idea, claims that “the fish, suitably de-spined, are delicious (they taste like snapper).”

“That got him wondering if consumer demand might be a force powerful enough to halt even an invasive species as successful as the lionfish. To test the market, Mr Dimin contacted a few chefs at snazzy restaurants in Chicago and New York to see if they had any interest in serving lionfish to their customers. All jumped at the chance. Sea to Table therefore bought a supply of the beasts and sent them on to the restaurants in question. The fish were sold out within two nights. Customers did, indeed, like the taste. But according to Bruce Sherman, chef and owner of North Pond Restaurant in Chicago, which took some of Mr Dimin’s initial batch, the story of the fish and the fact that eating it supports a conservation effort added to the appeal of the dish.”

Now all Dimin has to do is get fishermen to target lionfish (which can’t be done in using traditional methods such as nets or lines), but he believes there “a lot of people who are more than happy to get paid to go diving in the Caribbean—especially as they get to feel good about it, too.” Eating the right kinds of fish isn’t the only way that consumers can help the planet. Some Swedish stores and restaurants are helping their customers select food choices based on how much carbon dioxide it takes to produce it [“To Cut Global Warming, Swedes Study Their Plates,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, 23 October 2009].

“New labels listing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of foods, from whole wheat pasta to fast food burgers, are appearing on some grocery items and restaurant menus around the country. People who live to eat might dismiss this as silly. But changing one’s diet can be as effective in reducing emissions of climate-changing gases as changing the car one drives or doing away with the clothes dryer, scientific experts say.”

The new labels are a result of new food guidelines generated by the Swedish National Food Administration. The new guidelines give “equal weight to climate and health.”

“Some of the proposed new dietary guidelines, released over the summer, may seem startling to the uninitiated. They recommend that Swedes favor carrots over cucumbers and tomatoes, for example. (Unlike carrots, the latter two must be grown in heated greenhouses here, consuming energy.) They are not counseled to eat more fish, despite the health benefits, because Europe’s stocks are depleted. And somewhat less surprisingly, they are advised to substitute beans or chicken for red meat, in view of the heavy greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising cattle.”

The new guidelines are controversial. Some Swedes resent the fact that the government wants them to change their eating habits. The fact of the matter is that consumers who don’t want to change won’t — regardless of how much information they are given. The Swedish government and environmentalist hope that enough consumers will change their habits to make a difference.

“If the new food guidelines were religiously heeded, some experts say, Sweden could cut its emissions from food production by 20 to 50 percent. An estimated 25 percent of the emissions produced by people in industrialized nations can be traced to the food they eat, according to recent research here. And foods vary enormously in the emissions released in their production. While today’s American or European shoppers may be well versed in checking for nutrients, calories or fat content, they often have little idea of whether eating tomatoes, chicken or rice is good or bad for the climate.”

As I noted in a post entitled Counting Carbon, getting the numbers right is not a straight forward matter. Rosenthal notes that “the emissions impact of, say, a carrot, can vary by a factor of 10, depending how and where it is grown.” She continues:

“Earlier studies of food emissions focused on the high environmental costs of transporting food and raising cattle. But more nuanced research shows that the emissions depend on many factors, including the type of soil used to grow the food and whether a dairy farmer uses local rapeseed or imported soy for cattle feed. Business groups, farming cooperatives and organic labeling programs as well as the government have gamely come up with coordinated ways to identify food choices.”

The program is just getting started and it will probably take years to determine whether or not it has been beneficial. The big question is whether consumers will change from eating Sweden’s most popular grain, rice, to eating barley which produces much less carbon dioxide when grown than does rice. Then there is the question of cost. As I noted in the post about counting carbon, all those calculations don’t come cheap and labeling also adds to food costs. Food producers whose products have been singled out as less healthy alternatives for the environment have also weighed in with their objections. The program is having an effect beyond trying to educate consumers. Rosenthal continues:

“Next year, KRAV, Scandinavia’s main organic certification program, will start requiring farmers to convert to low-emissions techniques if they want to display its coveted seal on products, meaning that most greenhouse tomatoes can no longer be called organic. Those standards have stirred some protests. ‘There are farmers who are happy and farmers who say they are being ruined,’ said Johan Cejie, manager of climate issues for KRAV. For example, he said, farmers with high concentrations of peat soil on their property may no longer be able to grow carrots, since plowing peat releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide; to get the organic label, they may have to switch to feed crops that require no plowing. Next year KRAV will require hothouses to use biofuels for heating. Dairy farms will have to obtain at least 70 percent of the food for their herds locally; many previously imported cheap soy from Brazil, generating transport emissions and damaging the rain forest as trees were cleared to make way for farmland.”

Guilt seems to play a large role in all of these consumer-targeted efforts and it seems to be working. One Swedish hamburger chain says that “since the emissions counts started appearing on the menu, sales of climate-friendly items have risen 20 percent.” Rosenthal concludes her report by noting that the Swedes are committed to reducing emissions. “It has vowed to eliminate the use of fossil fuel for electricity by 2020 and cars that run on gasoline by 2030.” Although many people still view Sweden as the playground for liberals, it has most recently been governed by a center-right prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt. Even so, I don’t expect other developed nations be to as aggressive in getting consumers involved in emission reduction as the Swedes. Most consumers follow their pocketbooks and their desires rather than their consciences. Nevertheless, efforts like those described above are a good start at making us all more aware of how our habits affect the earth and others living on it.