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A Fishy Solution

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A Fishy Solution

By James McWilliams
September 2012

But the real bummer here is that at the end of an article brilliantly highlighting the declining biodiversity of oceans worldwide, an article that links that declining biodiversity to the harvesting of forage fish, we are told to address the problem by---I kid you not, read it for yourself---eating more forage fish. And thus we have yet another example of how trying to eat animals and have an ecologically correct diet is like trying to square a circle while holding your breath at the bottom of the sea.

Tom Philpott has a very good column in this month’s Mother Jones. You should buy the issue and read it (decent piece in there on raw milk, too). Inevitably, though, the article leaves me cold. Frigid in fact.

Philpott explores the deleterious connection between eating meat and declining oceanic biodiversity. There is, of course, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer runoff from growing all that corn and soy for animals to eat. We all know about that disaster. However, as the article goes on to note, there’s also the less known fact that commercial feed for land animals also contains substantial amounts of anchovies, sardines, and other “forage fish” that consume aquatic plankton. This is bad news. By harvesting these fish, which Philpott rightly calls the “key pivot of the oceanic food chain,” we endanger larger species of fish such as sharks, tuna, and salmon, thereby even further threatening aquatic ecosystems globally (even when we eat our organic chicken and beef).

All of this is critically important stuff, and duly noted as yet another horrific aspect of the animal-based food chain. It is, however, Philpott’s solution to the “anchovy problem” that leaves me adrift on the high seas. “What’s an ocean loving snacker to do?,” he asks. The first answer he gives had me wondering if Tom had finally turned a vegan corner: eat plants instead of animals--falafel, he suggests, as a way to note that a McDonald’s in Egypt now has a McFalafel. Sweet, I thought. How sensible: just leave the ocean alone. Let the ocean be the ocean. Let her keep her natural wealth. Just say no. And so on.

Then came the letdown, the inevitable letdown, and a really awkward letdown at that. After giving a righteous shout-out to falafel, Philpott goes on to address what the responsible consumer is supposed to do when we “crave protein of the animal variety.” Huh? Say whah? Crave protein of the animal variety? Christ, I thought, I'd made it 97 percent through a Philpott article without a single disagreement, and then this gem of disingenuousness.

We all know that humans can get more than enough protein from eating plants. But how many of you have woken up one morning and thought to yourself, “gee, my body currently craves animal rather than plant protein”? Is it possible to crave protein per se from a particular kingdom? Does anyone know anybody whose nutritional cravings are so remarkably source sensitive? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Does your body crave calcium from milk rather than broccoli? Of course not, you might crave milk over broccoli, but that's your problem (well, actually, it's everyone's), and it has nothing to do with the calcium craving. So what Tom is really addressing here is what we’re supposed to do when we get bad news about declining biodiversity but still want to keep eating the animals that are in danger of being depleted.

All the problems with contemporary food writing are encapsulated by some version of this impossible quest: trying to be a meat eating environmentalist. By even asking this question, Philpott negates the possibility of the only honest answer: stop eating animals. To be fair, even if he wanted to (and I'm not saying he does), he really can’t tell us to eat only plants as the only environmentally sound thing to do for the aquatic ecosystems about which he clearly cares. I'm guessing (just guessing) that Philpott, as a blogger in the employ of Mother Jones, must, to some extent, consider what his readership wants to hear. MJ readers want to hear about the atrocities of the industrial food system---the outrage!---but they most certainly do not want to be told that they should leave the ocean alone and stop eating fish. That would be a bummer.

But the real bummer here is that at the end of an article brilliantly highlighting the declining biodiversity of oceans worldwide, an article that links that declining biodiversity to the harvesting of forage fish, we are told to address the problem by---I kid you not, read it for yourself---eating more forage fish. And thus we have yet another example of how trying to eat animals and have an ecologically correct diet is like trying to square a circle while holding your breath at the bottom of the sea.