Surf or Turf: Beef vs. Fish and the Farmed Fish Debate
A study released by the Earth Policy Institute last week concluded that for the first time in recorded history, farmed fish production outpaced beef production. While both have been on an upward trajectory, farmed fish production has grown at an exponential rate since about 1990, rapidly closing the gap 40 million ton gap that existed just 20 years ago (see chart below). And a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that by 2015 farmed fish production may exceed wild caught fish volume.
The contemporary situation is the result of a long-term increase in total demand for seafood. To meet growing global demand, both wild caught and farmed fish populations have grown sharply over the past several decades, with farmed populations increasing at particularly sharp rates. Indeed, as the Earth Policy Institute report observes, farmed fish production has increased globally from around 5 tons per year in 1980 to more than 65 million tons per year by 2012. The vast majority of this increase has taken place over the past two decades.
As reported New Scientist magazine, the sharp increase in farmed fish carries a number of questions:
Some farmed fish are good for the environment. Chinese aquaculture, which accounts for 62 per cent of the world’s farmed fish, relies heavily on species such as silver carp. These can be grown on rice paddies and feed on grass, plankton and detritus. This relatively sustainable way of farming fish boosts rice yields and produces little pollution.
However, other popular farmed species such as salmon are carnivorous. They must be fed on smaller fish like anchovies, caught from the wild. As a result, salmon can only be farmed by further depleting wild fish stocks.
And then there’s the broader environmental questions. Farmed Atlantic salmon, for example, cause widespread environmental problems and are fed a heavy dose of artificial dyes to color their flesh, and antibiotics as a result of production practices leading to overpopulation and disease. As a result, many observers caution against consuming farmed Atlantic salmon.
Of course, there is a difficult tradeoff here. Conventional beef production can hardly be described as sustainable. And many of the aquaculture practices that are expanding to meet growing global demand for seafood are also unsustainable. At the same time, increasing global prices for grain are driving food prices higher.
But like the movement to expand grass-fed beef and to raise chickens locally, there is also pressure to develop a more ecologically sustainable aquaculture. One can only hope that the movement takes hold before too much damage is done. For my part, I think I’ll continue to buy wild caught.