I am from New Zealand. We pride ourselves on being environmentally friendly, ahead of the curve, and unafraid to make a stand – we were the first country to give women the vote, we refused to allow nuclear-powered US warships into our waters and became nuclear-free at the height of the revamped Cold War in the 1980s, and in April of this year the government announced a forthcoming ban on offshore oil exploration.
But like many others, we are a country of contradictions. I was made to realise one I hadn’t thought of much before recently, at the Slow Fish theme area of Slow Food’s biannual Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto gathering in Turin.
Like in many other countries, dairy and livestock agriculture in New Zealand are becoming more and more industrialised and environmentally damaging, creating more and more vehement public opposition and campaigns to protect our land, waterways, health, and food supply. Yet also, like in many other places, fisheries don’t seem to attract the same scorn. A popular tourist attraction near Aoraki/Mount Cook in the central South Island, one of New Zealand’s premier photo stops, is a salmon farm set up in one of the man-made canals built between glacial lakes and rivers to feed the huge network of hydroelectric power stations built i er the past century in the Mackenzie Basin (interestingly the same region that is currently the centre of fierce controversy about large-scale conversion fromdairy farms) At the salmon farm, you pay for a bag full of pellets that you then throw into one of several tanks, encaged by nets, to watch and laugh as swarms of intensively farmed salmon rush to the surface and scramble for the feed. At the shop inside, you can pay premium dollars for fresh ‘caught’ salmon from the farm.
Aquaculture started in good faith – as a way to reduce trawling, overfishing, and depleting fish stocks in oceans, seas and rivers. BUT it’s unintended development has led to arguably even worse consequences, potentially as damaging as agriculture: deforestation, land/ocean grabbing, nutritional deficiencies from a restricted feed diet, resources used to grow fish feed, excessive antibiotic use and subsequent antibiotic resistance in the human food chain, et cetera. If you look at it a certain way, the salmon farm example isn’t that far removed from paying to feed cooped-up chickens or intensively farmed, caged and injection-pumped pigs. I don’t know of any place where that is a popular tourist attraction.
Perhaps this is part of a wider issue for animal rights groups and environmental campaigners – although as vital to the food system and as potentially dangerous to the planet as crop, dairy and livestock farming, we struggle to look at fish farming through the same lens. Is it because we can’t look a fish in the eye, like we can a cow? Is it simply because we are land-based mammals, and what lies beneath the oceans and lakes is too foreign for us ever to understand? Organic agriculture (whether crops, vegetables or livestock) has become very sexy. Ditto for the derivatives of these activities: artisan cheese, bread, and salami-making, for example. Not so much for fishing.
Also, the traditional enemies of sustainable agriculture and livestock are obvious — they have names, like Monsanto and Tyson Foods. When it comes to seafood, we don’t throw around names like Parlevliet & van der Plas or Charoen-Pokphand in common usage, because very few of us know who they are. The supply chain is so ridiculously hazy, complicated, and long, with so many middle-men and various stages of processing along the way, that the idea of traceability is practically impossible in industrial seafood.
Is that really enough to mean we turn a blind eye so easily to what begets our fishy friends?