May 23, 2013
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) held a forum on sustainable diets earlier this month, with the goal of incorporating environmental sustainability in federal dietary guidelines. Seafood is sometimes overlooked in sustainable food system discussions, so I was pleased to see it included in the forum’s agenda. Ultimately, many critical issues were left unaddressed, especially regarding aquaculture, or farmed seafood.
Seafood is probably the clearest example of an aspect of our diet where recommendations do not match resources. In the U.S., average seafood consumption is around 16 pounds per person per year (an average of one 3.5 ounce serving per week). Dietary guidelines from the USDA, American Heart Association, and other groups recommend about twice that amount. In light of declining fisheries, the reliance on fishmeal and fish oil from wild fish in aquaculture feed, and environmental public health impacts of industrial finfish production, where would the additional seafood come from? In addition, is it ethical to recommend eating that much seafood in wealthy countries if it may reduce availability in developing countries where seafood may be a more important component of the diet? There are many issues to consider when trying to reconcile dietary guidelines and sustainability of seafood.
During his presentation, Barton Seaver of Harvard University explained that irrational economies tend to undervalue certain species that are perfectly capable of nourishing people but are virtually worthless to fishers due to lack of demand and/or familiarity. Often, these animals are treated as by-catch and are thrown back into the sea after being inadvertently caught. Mr. Seaver recommends creating a seafood economy based on supply instead of demand to take advantage of abundant fish species that can be eaten if people, businesses, and institutions broaden their seafood preferences or offerings. He also endorsed eating fish lower on the aquatic food chain to more efficiently manage aquatic resources.
I found this very interesting, and following his talk I asked Mr. Seaver about the links between fisheries and aquaculture. I expected to hear about overfishing of small fish to make feed for an expanding aquaculture industry or other pressing issues. He expressed support for shellfish farming because it cleans surrounding water and requires no feed, which is a great point. He also expressed optimism regarding the industry’s ability to address issues like overreliance on fishmeal/oil in feed and escapes from aquaculture operations because these issues cost the industry money. While that sounds reasonable, solving those problems also costs money. Throughout modern history we see examples of industries ignoring issues that appear to impact their bottom line because they believe that operating differently would cost even more. For example, animals kept in crowded conditions have higher rates of mortality and the meat industry relies on routine use of antibiotics to keep from changing living conditions. Not only do high mortality and use of antibiotics cost them money, this practice threatens public health by contributing to a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The industry aggressively fights new regulations, even as the medical and public health communities provide new evidence of the problem and ask lawmakers to address the issue. Unfortunately, I do not expect anything different from the aquaculture industry. Unless regulations are in place to protect the environment and public health, I expect certain sectors of the aquaculture industry to have high stocking densities, rely heavily on chemicals and antibiotics, experience escapes due to inadequate maintenance or use of cheaper materials, and actively fight regulations aimed at addressing these issues. For these reasons, I hope that future conversations aimed at addressing dietary recommendations and sustainability of seafood include considerations of the impacts of industrial aquaculture production on the environment and public health.