In a week of reports that world food prices are set to double in 20 years, it's worth focusing on how we eat fish - our main source of 'wild' protein, and one with considerable environmental costs attached.
What can we do?
The Zoological Society of London, campaigners and artists have partnered with Selfridges to launch Project Ocean - "a creative public call to action to defend the fish in the sea." The campaign and debates hinge on the projected collapse of the world's major fisheries by mid-century, its purpose to engage the public on the cost of overfishing and possible alternatives.
We're increasingly aware of high-profile issues about eating farmed meat - cutting down for health reasons and supporting local farmers with higher welfare standards (like RSPCA Freedom Food approved sources); and free-range eggs now represent about a third of the UK's egg consumption, a relatively successful expression of 'ethical consumerism'. Alongside the RSPCA and PETA, figures like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have played a huge role in raising awareness of the environmental costs and ethics of eating.
Yet ocean fish often barely register when it comes to choices at the supermarket shelves - a failure, perhaps, of imagination as much as education: it is difficult to picture how Atlantic cod goes from ocean to plate. Whether trawled or increasingly, farmed, it's easy to forget the downside - particularly with fish's growing reputation as a fresh, free-range, 'natural' food.
At "LET THEM EAT FISH...?" the May 26 edition of Ocean Talks, journalist Camilla Cavendish talked to a panel about regulating the fishing industry to consumers regulating what's on their plates, covering wild and farmed fish, and GM alternatives.
Panelist Aniol Estaban, from the New Economics Foundation, managed to remain optimistic about the challenges ahead - despite the threat to natural fish stocks should current practices, world population growth and the rise in popularity of seafood continue. His message was "we need to eat less fish" (one in three fish eaten here are from outside the EU - the UK's own stocks would sustain the market until only late July), with particular attention to key species threatened by overfishing. Esteban sees the EU as needing to focus on cultivating fish stocks that are sustainable, as "a fish stock properly managed can produce long-term use" - some fisheries are so inefficient they're landing around a third of their potential while others are near collapse. Governments need to look at the viability of allowing large trawling companies to continue trading fishing quotas.
Aquaculture was also on the menu with
Nick Joy, managing director and co-founder of Loch Duart, an independent Scottish salmon farming concern. He argued that "we haven't used the marketplace to campaign," suggesting consumers must accept that the environmental cost and future sustainability must be reflected in the price of fish. Loch Duart has pioneered initiatives in fish welfare, focusing on water quality and sustainably sourced fish meal, and was the first salmon farm in the world to receive Freedom Food approval. Joy pointed out that quality costs: Loch Duart's fishing grounds "lie fallow for 12 months - most farmers do six weeks. The consumer has to pay for that."
While the panellists talked EU bureaucracy and big business, the audience brought the debate round to the consumer, the end of the line. It was suggested that there's too much faith in shoppers to self-regulate: we're hooked on cheap food, with unsustainable costs normalised by big retailers. Another audience member pointed to the "obsession with the supposed health benefits of fish has led to higher consumption" - the opposite of what has happened with red meat, where public health warnings to reduce consumption might result in unintended environmental benefits.
Project Ocean runs to June 12