The Beacon

Sustainably Heckled in Chicago

This is the third in a series of four guest posts by Paul Greenberg, author of the bestselling book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.

One of the more enjoyable things I've done during the Four Fish book tour is to host sustainable seafood dinners at some of America's better restaurants. I've done this at Fork in Philadelphia, Savoy in New York City, Ammo in Los Angeles and most recently at North Pond in Chicago (Blue Hill at Stone Barnes and Lumiere in Boston are upcoming).  

At each dinner the chef and I reviewed the principles of eating sustainably from the ocean and then put together a four-course menu. Bruce Sherman at Chicago's North Pond, for example, did a dinner with an oyster/clam/gulf shrimp/spot prawn starter, a seared mackerel intermediate and then main courses of a farmed arctic char and a wild local lake whitefish.  

Each course represented a different potential solution: clams, oysters, shrimp and prawns are low trophic level feeders and have relatively small energy demands from the planet. The clams and oysters can be farmed with pretty much no damage to the environment and oyster beds are useful bottom habitat for many wild fish. The mackerel is lower on the food chain and quicker to reproduce than say, bluefin tuna, and still has plenty of omega threes.  <--break->

Farmed Arctic char tastes like salmon, but unlike salmon it can be viably grown in closed containment facilities without genetic modification. Fish farmed out of the ocean don't pose a disease transfer or escape risk. Finally the trap-caught Lake Huron whitefish was a nod to the fact that many big cities still have viable fisheries nearby and that, thanks to the Clean Water Act, Americans have a chance to reclaim localism in their seafood through the development of small-scale artisanal fisheries.

The Chicago dinner was a most pleasant event, but as we were wrapping up and having a Q&A over dessert, an angry Brit stood up in a rage and started questioning the whole premise of the dinner. "We have 6 billion people on the planet and we're going to have 9 billion, and you're telling us we don't need genetically modified food. Sustainability is a sham!"  

When I got home, I started thinking about the heckler's words and realized there are certain keys to closing the sustainability understanding circle. First, the premise that we need genetically modified fish in order to feed the world is preposterous. A mere fraction of the fish and shellfish that we farm have been subject to selective breeding programs.  

Selective breeding is not genetic modification, it is merely the selection of traits through breeding that lead to growing more feed-efficient animals. Every farmed land animal that we eat has been selectively bred for thousands of years and thus implementing similar selective breeding programs on seafood would yield us considerably more bang for the buck without having to tamper with genes.  

The second important point is the net calorie yield we would achieve by switching our seafood consumption patterns to lower trophic levels -- to filter feeders like clams and to forage fish like mackerel, sardines, and anchovies (instead of feeding those creatures to pigs, chickens and, yes, salmon). This shift would go a long way to stretching the food calories of the ocean. But exactly how much we'd have to change is still being debated and this is perhaps cause for the heckler's confusion. We need to know as nations what we should eat on a yearly basis in aggregate and what our overall seafood footprint should be, not just what we should eat at a single meal.

The Sea Around Us Program at the University of British Columbia is just about to launch a study that would help determine sustainable national seafood norms. A draft abstract of the study was sent over to me recently. "In the same way that coordinated efforts by the scientific community and governments have determined targets for greenhouse gas emissions," the abstract states, "targets are needed for seafood catch and consumption (and at what trophic level) to shift global fisheries to sustainable enterprises. . . This analysis could yield an ‘optimal sustainable consumption rate’ of wild fish, and in turn determine the rate of increase of aquaculture production and other alternatives to seafood, to meet demand."

A most noble and needed premise. When it is ready for publication I will forward it over to my British friend in Chicago.


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