Commentary: Farmed food fallacy

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Conventional wisdom among eco-activists considers farmed foods to be inferior to “naturally” raised alternatives. Indeed, aggressive campaigns are underway to demonize ventures such as farmed salmon, which they consider to be an environmental threat to the survival of wild salmon.

But at the same time their activist allies elsewhere are insisting consumers swear off red meat—for environmental reasons!—their “green” movement brethren are arguing that production of alternatives—including aquaculture-grown seafood—are equally unworthy.

What never seems to get as much attention is the sad state of most marine food resources, which are almost universally depleted. If one follows activist logic to its logical conclusion, then to protect both the environment and wildlife people must abandon animal foods and subsist on wheat, corn and soy—which, to feed the population of North America, requires a level mechanized cultivation that is roundly condemned by the those same activists.

At the same time, the protection of marine habitats and the preservation of threatened species struggling to survive in over-harvested fisheries and depleted ocean environments is de-linked from the commercial activities responsible for the crises in the first place.

We can’t switch to “healthier” seafood and expect to sustain the world’s current seafood harvest much longer.

A classic example is a controversy currently raging in the Cayman Islands, that Caribbean tourist destination first “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1503 (and originally named Las Tortugas for the abundant sea turtles there). These British territories, which lie south of Cuba, are perhaps most notable for their status as a financial haven for offshore wealth, a focal point of the last presidential election debates.

But the islands’ other attraction are its tropical waters, a scuba diving paradise, and one of the principal attractions for divers is the majestic green sea turtle. However, despite its graceful maneuverability in the water, the turtles are sluggish and slow when they trek to the sandy beaches each spring to lay their eggs. Then they’re easy to capture, and the indigenous population has long used both the turtles and their eggs as a significant food source.

Although the turtles are now protected, poaching remains a huge problem, which the Cayman government tried to address by funding a turtle farming operation. But the Cayman Turtle Farm, which receives subsidies of about $10 million a year, according to a story in the Cayman Free Press, has been attacked by animal welfare activists.

What a surprise, eh?

The World Society for the Protection of Animals, in particular, has criticized the farm’s environmental impact and insisted that domestic appetites for what was once considered a national delicacy have declined. Neil D’Cruze, leader of the organization’s wildlife campaign, said in a statement that sea turtle farming will never be profitable and urged a move away from meat production to a focus on conservation and habitat rehabilitation.

“Meat production could be scaled down over a number of years, meeting the smaller but truer demand, reaching a point where sea turtle farming can eventually cease,” D’Cruze said.

However, experts from the Cayman Islands Department of Environment argued that farm has an important conservation role to play.

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, the Department of Environment director, explained that turtle meat is still a culturally significant dish for many Islands residents. She told the Free Press it made sense to meet that demand by raising farmed turtles, which would decrease the profit potential for poachers.

“If the price of turtle meat is high, there is more temptation for people to go out and take turtles illegally,” Ebanks-Petrie told the Free Press. “We would prefer to see the demand for turtle meat met through farmed turtle than from wild populations, which cannot sustain harvesting.”

Assessing the economics

That makes sense, especially if the statement were applied to another species traditionally used for sustenance, such as deer or elk. Although those animals are hardly in danger of dying out, only the truly callous would prefer hunting them to extinction, as opposed to the operating game farms where they could be bred and managed as food animals.

Yet, the argument that wildlife—including sea creatures—are better off if left alone never ceases to be flogged by eco-activists. The idea that threatened populations can be protected merely by maintaining their habitat, while curtailing illegal harvesting, belies the economics involved, not to mention the two-and-a-half billion people worldwide who depend on hunting and harvesting said creatures for survival.

The light at the end of the endangered species tunnel isn’t the hope that activist campaigning can “reform” the cultural mores of millions of people across the developing world. Nor can the environmental challenges facing many dwindling animal populations be solved by demagoguery and fund-raising. It takes science and technology, in this case turtle farming, to provide disincentives for poaching and alternatives to harvesting wildlife for food.

According to reports, Cayman Turtle Farm management said new methods have increased production and reduced prices, in some cases by as much as 25 percent.

“Over the last breeding season in 2012, the Cayman Turtle Farm greatly increased egg and hatchling production,” said Tim Adam, the managing director. He cited dietary enhancements for breeding turtles, the removal of unproductive breeders and changing the ratio of males to females in the breeding pond.

“The lower the price for legal farmed turtle meat, the less financial incentive there is to poach turtles from the wild,” Adam said.

Wildlife activists beg to differ.

In a February letter to the Caymanian Compass, WSPA’s celebrity spokesperson Tanya Streeter, a world champion free diver, wrote that she believes “a combination of education about, conservation efforts of and protection measures for the wild population of green sea turtles will allow for Caymanians to continue eating turtle while respecting their status as an endangered species.”

The response by Turtle Farm management suggested otherwise:

“In 2012 it took over 900 turtles to satisfy local demand. If the Cayman Turtle Farm does not supply the local demand, where does Ms. Streeter or the WSPA suggest that amount of turtles will come from to allow Caymanians to continue eating turtles?

“We are saddened that Ms Streeter, who grew up in Cayman but now lives overseas, has chosen to align herself with the WSPA, an organization that appears to be funding a promotional campaign to discredit the Farm, rather than working to support the improvements, or putting their resources into undertaking actual work in the conservation of sea turtles.”

The bottom line her and in other controversies over aquaculture are pretty straightforward: Activists hate farmed seafood because they consider the process inferior to harvesting animals from a natural ecosystem.

But wildlife managers embrace it because they realize it’s the only hope we have of protecting wild food animals from extinction.

The only hope.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Robert    
Kentucky  |  September, 05, 2013 at 11:43 AM

Dan has made some important points here. As always, it's complicated and no one solution the "answer." I can't speak to turtle farming in the Caymans, but in regard to sea farming elsewhere, don't forget that some of the argument involves what is fed to fish, esp. salmon (soy, fish oils?), how they are treated, what kinds of diseases they develop (that could escape into wild populations), what measures are taken to treat diseases, added hormones, antibiotics, coloring agents (to keep salmon pink), etc. In relation to these issues, some fish farming is "better" than others, so to argue fish farming as a whole is to oversimplify the issues. Catfish farming is seen as more sustainable, as is Tilapia (usually), not so for shrimp, etc., etc. As for rejecting beef or other red meat for seafood, this is just as complicated, since seafood doesn't have to be the only alternative, and yes, if we all crave only vegetarian then farmland is going to have to be extended. From my perspective, we have to think not in absolutes but in the concept of sustainability of all production (and not just food, let's be honest). But then profit margins may decline and some participants will be forced out of the picture. Only by looking at all of this holistically can we even begin to solve the issues rightly raised by Dan.


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