By 2050 there will be two billion more people on the planet to feed. To put that number in perspective, over 800 million people around the world currently go hungry every day. To accommodate the population’s already unsustainable global food requirements, fragile ecosystems are being decimated to make way for farming and people are being exploited and endangered for cheap labour.
In May, National Geographic began an eight-month series exploring humanity’s relationship with food and how the currently unmet demand can cope with the predicted drastic population increase. In an article entitled How to Farm a Better Fish, Joel K. Bourke, Jr. looks at aquaculture as a potential solution.
No longer a fledgling industry, fish farms produce over 70 million tons of seafood a year. The world now produces more farmed fish than beef.
Until recently, fish farms were lauded as a sustainable solution to the rampant overfishing that has been systematically emptying the oceans and changing aquatic ecosystems. However, its ramifications are starting to be felt, from pollution and environmental destruction to health risks and the unethical treatment of workers and animals.
Whether farmed offshore or in on-land warehouses, fish farms have negative impacts on their environments. Garry Leape of the Pew Environment Group explains, ‘There’s a lot of concentrated fish waste, it creates dead zones in the ocean around the pens.’ On land, such waste has to be processed through clogged sewage systems and often ends up in landfills. In Asia, where, according to Bourke, 90% of fish are farmed, ‘aquaculture pollution – a putrid cocktail of nitrogen, phosphorus, and dead fish – is now a widespread hazard.’
It is at this point that the health of the planet and humans intersect. To keep fish alive in such densely-packed, polluted conditions, farmers often use antibiotics and pesticides, some of which are banned in the U.S. According to Bourke, ‘the U.S. now imports 90% of its seafood – around 2% of which is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.’ A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the safety of food imported from China states that ‘fish are often raised in ponds where they feed on the waste from poultry and livestock.’
Meanwhile, all of the efforts to produce farmed fish are actually contributing to overfishing rather than abating it. Most farmed fish are fed pellets made from fish meal and various grains. To obtain the small fish used for the fish meal, Bourke reports that ships are sent to Antarctica to ‘ harvest more than 200,000 tons a year of tiny krill – a major food source for penguins, seals, and whales.’ Off the coasts of southeast Asia, fishers drag large nets through the ocean, indiscriminately catching anything in their path, including at risk or endangered species, to be ground into fishmeal.
With such consequences, aquaculture seems neither an ethical nor effective way to solve the world’s food crisis. According to ocean conservation organisation Oceana’s CEO Andy Sharpless, salmon eat upwards of five pounds of small fish to produce just one pound of salmon, a net loss of protein. Additionally, the soybeans and grains that comprise the remaining makeup of fish feed pellets could go directly to people in need.
But the whole enterprise of fish farming has consumers, not people in need, as its sole beneficiaries. Those who could benefit from additional food resources are the ones working under oftentimes unregulated conditions to farm and ship the fish, not to eat it.
And then there are the fish themselves. Like factory farmed cows, pigs, and chickens reared in their own filth in spaces so small they are oftentimes unable to even turn around, farmed fish are crammed at an unnatural density in unnaturally small spaces. They are treated like objects instead of living beings.
The future of food this is not.