No Dairy or Eggs
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By Jill Richardson on Alternet.org
Americans love their shrimp. It's
the most popular seafood in the country, but unfortunately much of the
shrimp we eat are a cocktail of chemicals, harvested at the expense of one
of the world's productive ecosystems. Worse, guidelines for finding some
kind of "sustainable shrimp" are so far nonexistent.
In his book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of
Vanishing Seafood, Taras Grescoe paints a repulsive picture of how
shrimp are farmed in one region of India. The shrimp pond preparation begins
with urea, superphosphate, and diesel, then progresses to the use of
piscicides (fish-killing chemicals like chlorine and rotenone), pesticides
and antibiotics (including some that are banned in the U.S.), and ends by
treating the shrimp with sodium tripolyphosphate (a suspected neurotoxicant),
Borax, and occasionally caustic soda.
Upon arrival in the U.S., few if any, are inspected by the FDA, and when
researchers have examined imported ready-to-eat shrimp, they found 162
separate species of bacteria with resistance to 10 different antibiotics.
And yet, as of 2008, Americans are eating 4.1 pounds of shrimp apiece each
year -- significantly more than the 2.8 pounds per year we each ate of the
second most popular seafood, canned tuna. But what are we actually eating
without knowing it? And is it worth the price -- both to our health and the
Understanding the shrimp that supplies our nation's voracious appetite is
quite complex. Overall, the shrimp industry represents a dismantling of the
marine ecosystem, piece by piece. Farming methods range from those described
above to some that are more benign. Problems with irresponsible methods of
farming don't end at the "yuck," factor as shrimp farming is credited with
destroying 38 percent of the world's mangroves, some of the most diverse and
productive ecosystems on earth. Mangroves sequester vast amounts of carbon
and serve as valuable buffers against hurricanes and tsunamis. Some compare
shrimp farming methods that demolish mangroves to slash-and-burn
agriculture. A shrimp farmer will clear a section of mangroves and close it
off to ensure that the shrimp cannot escape. Then the farmer relies on the
tides to refresh the water, carrying shrimp excrement and disease out to
sea. In this scenario, the entire mangrove ecosystem is destroyed and turned
into a small dead zone for short-term gain. Even after the shrimp farm
leaves, the mangroves do not come back.
A more responsible farming system involves closed, inland ponds that use
their wastewater for agricultural irrigation instead of allowing it to
pollute oceans or other waterways. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's
Seafood Watch program, when a farm has good disease management protocols, it
does not need to use so many antibiotics or other chemicals.
One more consideration, even in these cleaner systems, is the wild fish
used to feed farmed shrimp. An estimated average of 1.4 pounds of wild fish
are used to produce every pound of farmed shrimp. Sometimes the wild fish
used is bycatch -- fish that would be dumped into the ocean to rot if they
weren't fed to shrimp -- but other times farmed shrimp dine on species like
anchovies, herring, sardines and menhaden. These fish are important foods
for seabirds, big commercial fish and whales, so removing them from the
ecosystem to feed farmed shrimp is problematic.
Additionally, some shrimp are wild-caught, and while they aren't raised
in a chemical cocktail, the vast majority is caught using trawling, a highly
destructive fishing method. Football field-sized nets are dragged along the
ocean floor, scooping up and killing several pounds of marine life for every
pound of shrimp they catch and demolishing the ocean floor ecosystem as they
go. Where they don't clear-cut coral reefs or other rich ocean floor
habitats, they drag their nets through the mud, leaving plumes of sediment
so large they are visible from outer space.
After trawling destroys an ocean floor, the ecosystem often cannot
recover for decades, if not centuries or millennia. This is particularly
significant because 98 percent of ocean life lives on or around the seabed.
Depending on the fishery, the amount of bycatch (the term used for unwanted
species scooped up and killed by trawlers) ranges from five to 20 pounds per
pound of shrimp. These include sharks, rays, starfish, juvenile red snapper,
sea turtles and more. While shrimp trawl fisheries only represent 2 percent
of the global fish catch, they are responsible for over one-third of the
world's bycatch. Trawling is comparable to bulldozing an entire section of
rainforest in order to catch one species of bird.
Given this disturbing picture, how can an American know how to find
responsibly farmed or fished shrimp? Currently, it's near impossible. Only
15 percent of our total shrimp consumption comes from the U.S. (both farmed
and wild sources). The U.S. has good regulations on shrimp farming, so
purchasing shrimp farmed in the U.S. is not a bad way to go. Wild shrimp,
with a few exceptions, is typically obtained via trawling and should be
avoided. The notable exceptions are spot prawns from British Columbia,
caught in traps similar to those used for catching lobster, and the small
salad shrimp like the Northern shrimp from the East Coast or pink shrimp
from Oregon, both of which are certified as sustainable by the Marine
Stewardship Council. However, neither are true substitutes for the large
white and tiger shrimp American consumers are used to.
The remaining 85 percent came from other countries and about two-thirds
of our imports are farmed with the balance caught in the wild, mostly via
trawling. China is the world's top shrimp producer -- both farmed and wild
-- but only 2 percent of China's shrimp are imported to the U.S. The world's
number two producer, Thailand, is our top foreign source of shrimp. Fully
one third of the shrimp the U.S. imports comes from Thailand, and over 80
percent of those shrimp are farmed.
The next biggest sources of U.S. shrimp are Ecuador, Indonesia, China,
Mexico, Vietnam, Malaysia and India. Together, those countries provide
nearly 90 percent of America's imported shrimp. Interestingly, Ecuador's
shrimp industry exists almost entirely to supply U.S. demand, with over 93
percent of its shrimp coming up north to the U.S. The vast majority of those
shrimp (almost 90 percent) are farmed. Sadly, shrimp production is
responsible for the destruction of 70 percent of Ecuador's mangroves.
Farming practices in other countries range from decent to awful, but there's
currently no real way for a consumer to tell whether shrimp from any
particular country was farmed sustainably or not.
Geoff Shester, senior science manager of Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch,
says that ethical shrimp consumption is a chicken and egg problem. On one
hand, the solution is for consumers to show demand for responsibly farmed
and wild shrimp by eating it but on the other hand, ethical shrimp choices
are not yet widely available. Seafood Watch is working with some of the
largest seafood buyers in the U.S. to help them buy better shrimp, but it's
currently a major challenge.
The first challenge is that labeling and certification programs do not
yet exist to identify which farmed shrimp meet sustainable production
standards. The second challenge is that even when such programs are in
place, the U.S. demand will likely greatly exceed their supply.
Shester's advice to consumers right now is "only buy shrimp that you know
comes from a sustainable source. If you can't tell for sure, try something
else from the Seafood Watch yellow or green lists." Knowing that many will
be unwilling to give up America's favorite seafood, he advocates simply
eating less of it and keeping an eye on future updates to the Seafood Watch
guide to eating sustainable seafood.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member
of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the
author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What
We Can Do to Fix It.
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