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Opinion: Why You Should Give Farmed Fish a New Look

Barton Seaver

March 02, 2017

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We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and all that’s in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about. Our latest entry comes from Barton Seaver, director of the Sustainable Food and Health Initiative at Harvard, and a chef, author, and advocate. Below, Seaver explores the current state of aquaculture, or farmed fish, and how it fits into a more sustainable future.

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“Farmed or wild?” is a question that I am asked far too often. Both means of production have their detractors and share of damaging practices. However, aquaculture, or the farming of seafood, has long suffered disproportionately in the public’s perception of this oft-maligned, yet vital food source. As a chef who once quite vociferously preached that aquaculture across the board was “farmed and dangerous,” I don’t regret the passions that drove me to that position, but I do proudly sing a redemption song.

The public often hears damning information—some of it true—about aquaculture, so much so that it obscures the major advances the industry has accomplished. It’s important that we see the industry in a broader context that goes beyond environmental metrics. When aquaculture is viewed in this larger frame of reference, the acute measure of its environmental impact is no longer a good judge of its value to our society.

One of the failures in our efforts to evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture has been that we have not measured it against other protein choices.

If we compare seafood with terrestrial proteins, measuring each by the environmental impacts of land-use alterations, greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic use, freshwater use, and feed conversion ratios, seafood is often the better environmental choice. While I am by no means anti-beef or any other properly raised farm animal, our health and that of the environment depend on diversity. When we make seafood decisions based on evaluations inclusive of the environments, cultures, and economies of maritime communities and the positive health impacts of seafood consumption, we can better appreciate its role in our food system.

If we are to be a healthy society, both wild and farmed seafood must be part of our sustainable choices. In fact, farming seafood is one of the great opportunities available to expand food production, increase quality of life and health outcomes, sustain coastal communities, and restore the resiliency and productivity of our oceans.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend eating eight or more ounces of seafood per week. Research by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts University found that consuming just three to six ounces of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (farmed or wild) a week has been shown to reduce the risk of death from coronary heart disease by 36%, making seafood so important that Mozaffarian declares “the three S’s of public health to be: wear your seatbelt, don’t smoke, and eat seafood.”

If we are to follow this advice, aquaculture simply must be a part of our food system. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that without it, the world will face a seafood shortage of 50–80 million tons by 2030.

I do not suggest farmed seafood as a substitute for, but rather an addition to, wild-capture seafood. And though aquaculture still has many obstacles to overcome, as the industry itself seeks sustainability in its processes, the plain fact is that aquaculture on the whole has advanced in sustainability far past what consumers, chefs, and media often allow it credit for.

In the waters of my home state of Maine there are farms producing great product using best practices and constantly looking to improve. Businesses such as Cooke Aquaculture provides a great example of companies committed to forging ahead with innovations that address many of the environmental issues that have plagued the industry, especially with farmed salmon. The company grows salmon ranging from a competitively priced commodity product to True North salmon, a branded product of rarified quality that has captured the attention of some of the very best chefs.

Cooke has helped pioneer a unique approach by which nutrients released from salmon pens support growth of mussels and seaweeds farmed nearby. By reimagining ocean-farming to mimic the natural diversity of marine ecosystems, they are decreasing the negative environmental impact while increasing the positive effects these systems have on our health and improving economies through the number of my neighbors they sustainably employ.

Aquaculture grows not just finfish: oysters, clams, and mussels are well-established industries that have been a large part of this story for hundreds of years. The farming of bivalves is an industry I have long celebrated. The impacts of these systems are more than just sustainable—they are restorative, improving the ecosystems in which they are raised. In fact, I’ll go so far as to proclaim it our patriotic duty to consume as many farm-raised clams, mussels, and oysters as possible.

Aquaculturists, just like fishermen, are a part of our food system, and it’s time we look anew at an industry that must be embraced and encouraged by consumers and chefs. Sure, producers must be held responsible for continuosly working to minimize their environmental footprint. But we must equally celebrate their efforts to maximize aquaculture’s contributions to our tables and our health. Remember: don’t smoke, wear your seatbelt, and eat farmed and wild seafood.

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Barton Seaver is director at the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center For Health and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health. A lauded author, chef, and public speaker, Seaver has made it his life’s work to improve our relationship to the earth and the ocean. Learn more about his work at bartonseaver.org.

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The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.