Local food: defending what’s local, healthy and organic

The mainstream news media loves the ‘man bites dog’ story. Anything counter-intuitive is more likely to be front page news. So too, does the media like ‘debunking’ environmental claims. These two instincts came together in a front page Globe and Mail story on November 24, 2009.

Occupying one third of the front page with lovely colour images of sockeye and Atlantic salmon, the headline ran: ‘Debunking our fetish of fresh.’ The article started off: ‘The local food movement has made waves among environmentally conscious consumers. Why buy frozen sockeye from Alaska when you could choose the fresh stuff from your backyard? An ecological economist has revealed the burden of buying local: the carbon footprint is much bigger than you’d think…’

Classic Globe and Mail: definitely provocative; debunking what is intuitive; slapping down the locavore movement.

On reading the story and doing a bit more research, I suggest an accurate headline would have been ‘More reasons to avoid farmed salmon.’

It turns out the entire study, a collaborative effort between Dalhousie School for Resource and Environmental Studies, the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, and Ecotrust, focused only on the environmental impact of salmon production. The researchers looked at wild versus aquaculture, transportation of fresh versus frozen, and the carbon footprint of getting salmon to the plate.

In that analysis it was not so much local versus imported, as local aquaculture versus imported wild salmon. Even accounting for carbon emitted in the transportation, a ‘local’ choice of farmed salmon has a whopping carbon footprint compared with wild, sustainable salmon.

It turns out that the largest carbon component of salmon production is the huge ecological cost of making the pellets fed to farmed salmon. Those pellets are made from fish protein. Currently a significant proportion of the wild fish caught globally is diverted to making pellets for farmed fish. According to the World Resources Institute, 10-15% of the world’s total production of fishmeal—a concentrated mix of anchovies, sardines and other low-value fish—go to aquaculture. The fishmeal, which could feed people, goes to the carnivorous, high-value aquaculture species—salmon and shrimp.

The environmental damage from shrimp aquaculture is horrific—including the destruction of mangrove forests, salinization of local, coastal farmland, loss of habitat for the wild fishery (and a myriad of other species that inhabit mangroves), leading to loss of sustainable livelihoods in countries from Thailand to Ecuador.

Vandana Shiva, heroic Indian scientist and activist, once told me that of all the destructive industries that had ever come to India, shrimp aquaculture was the worst. The Indian Supreme Court ordered a moratorium on shrimp aquaculture on the evidence of the ecological and social devastation it caused. In Thailand, shrimp is referred to as ‘pink gold’, and, as in Bangladesh and Ecuador, those opposing shrimp farms have been murdered.

It takes up to two kilograms of fish meal for each kilogram of shrimp or salmon produced through aquaculture. And that, on top of local environmental concerns of sea lice, destruction of benthic biota, creating anoxic environments due to fish feces, loss of coastal zones for healthy ecosystems, is one more reason not to eat farmed salmon.

As lead researcher, Professor Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie explained it, ‘Intensive livestock production, whether it be salmon or milk, is predicated on concentrated feeds…that are global commodities.’

It also turns out that fresh versus frozen can lead to poor choices if such decisions are uninformed by the reality. Fish sold as ‘fresh’ may have been air-freighted, while frozen at sea has a lower carbon footprint. It turns out that shipping fish by container ship is less GHG-intensive than most other methods of transport.

I doubt very much that residents of this area, committed to eating locally, would ever make the mistake of thinking that ‘local’ farm-salmon was an environmental choice. The multitude of reasons for shunning this destructive industry are well known. Whether the aquaculture operations contributed to the collapse of returning Fraser River sockeye salmon this year will be determined (we hope) in the judicial inquiry. It is quite likely that the greater damage was done by high temperatures in the river’s waters, due to the climate crisis. Nevertheless, the aquaculture industry is being pressed globally, including by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, to improve its record or face bans.

The overall point that local is not always better is worth elaborating with some sensible ‘life-cycle’ tests of the food in question. So, if you live next to an industrial-scale hog factory, you are better to eat something brought in from an adjoining county that was raised organically. Of course, if you are unfortunate enough to live next to a hog factory, you would not want to eat what is produced there.

A few simple tests will help. Local is best if it is raised organically, always. Local is likely best as long as it is not from an intensive livestock operation or aquaculture. Local may still be best if the ‘food miles’ to import organically grown fruits and veggies begin to circle the globe. And, please, add to your standard restaurant query about the salmon, ‘Is this shrimp local and wild caught?’ If not, do the mangroves a favour and order whatever is wild and local and sustainable.

Elizabeth E. May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada, candidate in Saanich Gulf Islands and Officer of the Order of Canada.