The Emptying of the Oceans

Animal AgricultureMartin Rowe

On November 1, Alfonso Daniels of the British Broadcasting Corporation, reported on conflicts between Senegalese and Mauritanian fishermen off the coast of West Africa (“‘Fish are vanishing’—Senegal’s devastated coastline”). Senegalese boats had been moving into Mauritanian waters in search of catch, which had led to clashes with Mauritania’s coastguard and the deaths of perhaps dozens of fishermen.

The causes of the conflict are many and multivalent. Years of (sometimes illegal) overfishing from European and East Asian trawlers have led to a collapse in fish stocks. Mor Ndiaye, a Senegalese fisherman, tells Daniels: “The fish just vanished, what can we do? We used to catch enough fish in a day or two. Now we need to go out at sea for weeks to catch the same amount. It’s terrifying, we can only rely on God.”

Of the fish that are caught in Mauritania, half are now turned into powdered meal in factories that dot the coast of Mauritania, as they do in Senegal. These factories, which are owned by Chinese and Russian companies, employ mainly Chinese and Turkish workers. The meal is exported to China, where it is fed to farmed fish and other livestock.

Fish have long made up a staple diet for the coastal communities of West Africa. Indeed, writes Daniels, fish constitute 75 percent of the daily protein intake for many coastal Africans, as well as those in interior, landlocked countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali. With the reduction in opportunities to fish, some fishermen are abandoning their profession and taking to the open seas in search of a better life in Europe. These perilous journeys, often in craft unsuited for long ocean journeys, can be fatal, whether through starvation, exposure, or capsizing. Those who make the trek north through the Sahara run the risk of exploitation or worse from human traffickers. Crossing the Mediterranean is also extremely hazardous.

Mauritanian and Senegalese governments have recently tried to calm tensions between their fishing communities by establishing quotas. However, Daniels notes, there is considerable dissatisfaction with Mauritanian inspectors, who’ve been accused of accepting kickbacks from non–West African countries to ignore illegal overfishing. As Alassane Samba, who used to direct Senegal’s oceanic research institute, tells Daniels: “Mauritania is protecting its waters not for its people, but for foreigners.”

Daniels’ story highlights the many interlinked and moving parts of today’s globalized extractive animal-agricultural complex, which are worth examining in more detail. Most glaringly, perhaps, the plight of the fishermen of West Africa illustrates the powerlessness of local communities when confronted with either governmental inaction toward, or active collusion with, industrial-scale production aligned with powerful national governments.

The BBC story echoes that of an article on April 30, 2017, in the New York Times (“China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink,”), in which Andrew Jacobs reports on the challenges facing regional fishing centers on a planet where 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or close to collapse. Communities from the Bering Sea to eastern China and beyond now catch smaller, fewer, and less desirable marine life, including the young of species whose exploitation would mean the end of future “harvests.” According to Jacobs, most of the fish that the Senegalese do haul in “is sent abroad, with a lot ending up as fishmeal fodder for chickens and pigs in the United States and Europe.”

The People’s Republic of China offers payments, continues Jacobs, to the country’s enormous fishing fleets to build and maintain its boats, subsidizes fishing communities. It also turns a blind eye to illegal activity. In the case of the Spratly Islands (the set of reefs, islets, and atolls that China is developing in the South China Sea), the PRC’s government is encouraging fishing fleets to colonize the waters to consolidate and extend China’s geopolitical dominance of the region.

It may be easy to blame the PRC for its failure to regulate overfishing and stop poaching, or criticize its use of private companies to extend its political reach. Yet China is merely the most recent manifestation of a public–private accommodation that reaches back to the English and Spanish pirates in the Caribbean, the Dutch and British East India companies, King Leopold II of Belgium’s private fiefdom of the Congo Free State, and on to the proxy Soviet and Western conflicts in Africa and South-East Asia during and after the struggles for independence.

On the high seas of today, whether sailing under flags of convenience or under their own insignia, fleets from East Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States remove vast amounts of fish from the world’s waters every year in an attempt both to meet demand and extend hegemony. As Liu Xinzhong, deputy general director of the bureau of fisheries in Beijing, says Jacobs’ Times article, China is merely following that immutable directive: “‘People come to me and ask, “If China doesn’t fish, where would Americans get their fish to eat?”’”

The complexity of calling out China is further exacerbated by the assiduousness with which the Chinese government has courted African leaders, promising that China will not interfere in these nations’ internal politics, no matter how repressive or kleptocratic. In September 2018, President Xi Jingping pledged another $60 billion (following $60 billion in 2015) for projects throughout Africa, emphasizing that such aid had to benefit Africans, be environmentally responsible, protect wildlife, and combat desertification.

However, as the case of Senegal and Mauritania illustrates, African workers aren’t necessarily benefiting from employment at the fishmeal factories, even as their jobs on the open waters no longer are tenable. Moreover, the practices of all of the boats—whether local vessels or the huge trawlers off the coast of West Africa—are far from environmentally responsible or protecting wildlife. The Chinese workers who staff the fishmeal factories constitute some of the one million Chinese who’ve moved to Africa in recent years. (The numbers of Chinese may now be declining as the economies of some African countries cool.)

The dynamic between China and Africa exemplifies the continued colonial and neocolonial relationship that Western and now East Asian countries have with Africa. Rich in natural resources, weak in governance, and confined by a neoliberal Washington Consensus that encourages free trade, foreign direct investment, privatization, deregulation, and the selling off of natural assets rather than retaining and adding value to them, African governments continue to cede their finite natural resources to industrialized countries that may be deficient in those natural resources, have lots of capital, and need to satisfy a population hungry for commercial products and more consumer options.

As with the colonial powers in “the Scramble for Africa” in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China is looking to feed its expanding middle class and rapid industrialization by exploiting Africa and Africans, and turning a blind eye to poor or corrupt governance and the political and social destabilization that may occur as a result. Meanwhile, as the colonial forces of yesteryear built railways, mines, and capital cities, the Chinese pledge and build much-needed airports, dredge ports, construct railroads, and provide other infrastructure.

Of course, another way of looking at China’s presence in Africa is that Western aid has failed and only created corruption and dependency. It is possible, although not inevitable, that these infrastructure projects, including the fishmeal factories, will spur enough economic growth around them for the African countries to pay back the loans given to them by China. However, the risk is that the burden on the local ecosystems will do the reverse. The irony, as the plight of the Senegalese fishermen illustrates, is that instead of development, the inequitable partnership actually poses a threat—both to the Africans’ native countries and beyond their borders.

No longer able to fish, young men may turn to other ways to make a living. In the Philippines, according to Jacobs’ Times story, former fishermen are burning protected tropical rainforest to plant rice fields. The destruction of roots that keep the earth in place, however, causes landslides, leading to loss of topsoil and ultimately barren land. Sometimes that displacement turns violent. In Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate, social scientists from Adelphi, a German think-tank, identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” for non-state armed groups, who might serve as a source of employment and grievance-redress, step in to control water or other vital services, and further destabilize countries. The Adelphi group cite the presence of Boko Haram around Lake Chad and the Janjaweed in Darfur as examples of this.

As people take to the seas (or cross the desert) in search of a better life in Europe, they join the river of migrants flowing from rural areas who can no longer practice their way of life because of climate change, the consolidation and industrialization of farming, and the destruction of habitat or land grabs. Fleeing to urban areas, rural migrants place further stress on already-scarce housing stock, poor sewage treatment, and high unemployment rates. These, in turn, threaten further destabilization and unrest, which only increase pressures to emigrate.

Population decline in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere, combined with excess labor pools in Africa and other parts of the developing world would indicate that well-controlled immigration might solve both problems. However, the recent rise of ethno-nationalist leaders in the United States and parts of Europe, stirred by cultural and racial fears of mass immigration and loss of regional identity, suggest that economic realities and confrontations on the border may only reinforce illiberal and autocratic tendencies, exacerbate tensions between nation states, and lead to further instability.

Behind these geopolitical human realities is a mindset that views animal life as an inexhaustible commodity to be extracted, industrialized, and globalized—whether that life consists of the fish ground into meal, or the livestock to whom that meal is fed, in China, Europe, or the United States. Unlike ungulates or monogastrics, fish typically are measured by the ton rather than individually, and so the number of pelagic fish caught may, literally, be countless—although one effort a decade ago calculated the total at 2.74 trillion. This number doesn’t include non-target animals netted (estimated at about 38 million tonnes per year), a figure that, according to the WWF, includes 300,000 cetaceans, 250,000 turtles, and 300,000 seabirds.

The assumption that nature’s marine bounty is infinite runs counter to emerging consensus about the essential role that marine ecosystems play in regulating the planet’s climate. The ocean contains fifty times and twenty times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and soil respectively, and phytoplankton (which are responsible for more than half of all photosynthesis on Earth) remove half the carbon dioxide released via the burning of fossil fuels. Not only does a hotter climate threaten the photosynthetic capabilities of phytoplankton, but rising surface sea temperatures have reduced the number of phytoplankton by 40 percent since 1950. Since phytoplankton are the first link in a food chain that reaches all the way up to the great whales, and spreads throughout the marine food chain, their disappearance threatens fish stocks of all kinds everywhere on the planet.

The core madness of Daniels’ story for the BBC lies in the fact that the fishmeal produced doesn’t even go to feed humans directly, but to fatten farmed fish or livestock. Farmed carnivorous now fish eat fewer fish by consuming meal filled with corn and soy. Some evidence suggests that a supplemented soy-corn meal would perform almost as well (there would be less fat), and have a more balanced “fish-in, fish-out” (FIFO) ratio than current fishmeal. However, as Daniels’ story shows, animal agribusiness and aquaculture is still using wild-caught fish, which does nothing to help West African coastal communities feed themselves. It should be added that continuing to use wild-caught fish also means exposing consumers to mercury, lead, plastics, and other poisons concentrated in their flesh.

One proposed solution is providing insect meal as feed for farm-raised fish such as trout and salmon. A number of insect species, such as the black soldier fly, have been tried, although, like the soy-corn combination, they don’t have enough oily fats. Another option, of course, might be encouraging people to consume insects themselves. A 2013 report from the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, noted that insects “form part of the traditional diet of at least 2 billion people,” and that of the 1,900 different species that had been used for food, most were beetles, followed by caterpillars, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets, among several other orders.

Although, insects (like all animals) contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and require feed in order to grow, their protein and calorie conversion ratios are much superior to ruminants, monogastrics, and fish. (For instance, the report notes, not only do crickets produce 1kg of meat for only 1.7kg of feed, but much more of the animal (80 percent) is available for direct consumption than chicken and pigs (55 percent) or cattle (40 percent). Mealworms have comparable amounts of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids as fish, and, says the report, “the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat.” The report further notes that raising such animals at an industrial scale would not leave a large environmental footprint, and would “offer important livelihood opportunities for people in both developing and developed countries.”

Yet another option remains to be realized, and that is the development of cellular meat from fish. Companies such as Finless Foods and BlueNalu, as well as the incubator New Harvest, are looking at the challenges and opportunities presented by growing seafood from fish cell and tissue cultures. Indeed, argue the authors of the article “Cell-Based Fish: A Novel Approach to Seafood Production and an Opportunity for Cellular Agriculture,” aquaculture’s liquid environment and temperate conditions may be the most ideal in which to culture fish-flesh cells—perhaps more so than those of mammals or birds.

Beyond these solutions are indigenous grains and legumes—such as fonio (which is rich in protein), cowpea, egusi, locust bean, moringa, and many others—that offer a continuous means of sustenance. The challenge is persuading a rapidly urbanizing global population that a “Western” conception of “modernity” and “wealth” (which favors the consumption of animal foods, including bushmeat) should not mean the abandonment of the indigenously grown plant-based food that once enabled communities to eat locally and healthfully. These plants and ideas will need to be revived and/or revalorized, should the animals that once provided a source of protein no longer survive on land or in the ocean.

“The fish just vanished,” Mor Ndiaye, the Senegalese fisherman, told Alfonso Daniels of the BBC. “It’s terrifying, we can only rely on God.” One might excuse Mr. Ndiaye’s lament as o overly colorful—that the fishmeal factories suggest that plenty of fish are being caught, and that the situation is remediable not through divine intervention but through potentially straightening but hardly terrifying public policy (establishing marine sanctuaries to retain fish stocks, rigorously enforcing quotas, finding supplementary sources of protein, providing alternative sources of labor, reducing the need for fish meal in the first place). Indeed, the New York Times report observes that the Chinese government is looking to register all its fishing boats to monitor illegal fishing more effectively. As Liu Xinzhong of the fisheries bureau says, “The era of fishing any way you want, wherever you want, has passed. We now need to fish by the rules.”

However, it could be that Mor Ndiaye is sending a signal that officials and officialese ignore at their peril: that ecosystems will not slowly decline but collapse once a tipping point has been reached, as whole species “vanish”—wiped out in a blink of an eye by the severance of the trophic cascade; or a minuscule, but definitive increase in sea temperature that changes breeding patterns; or the slightest shifting of an ocean current that alters spawning grounds and food sources. At that point, given the climatic changes already baked in, the acts of God that may be visited upon us, and the subsequent catastrophes that neither local, regional, national, nor global governance will be able to handle, the future may indeed offer nothing but terror.

In such circumstances, then, it’s clear that those of us who can afford to live without animal products and thrive should do so. As this story so clearly illustrates, to continue consuming fish because it somehow is less obviously harmful to animal welfare, or produces fewer direct GHG emissions, or has a more efficient protein-conversion rate than beef, means ignoring the continuing inequities and colonialism of our diet, and maintains the exploitation of those whose material wellbeing is directly affected by our thoughtless consumption. The story shows how inextricably animal agriculture of all kinds is tied into neoliberal economic model that threatens not merely planetary survival but also is actively destabilizing societies and threatens democracies and the civilizational order.

The story also illustrates that not all “vegan” options are the same: that the opportunities for Mor Ndiaye to eat sustainably and healthfully, earn a living, and look forward to a better future are more constrained than yours or mine. For him and millions of others like him throughout the developing world, farming and eating insects may be essential additional sources of protein, as is a rediscovery of an indigenous and resilient plant-based food culture and potentially the widespread availability of cellular-based fish protein produced on site and made affordable to local communities. The sad truth is that until we in the developed world model the same downscaled protein consumption that we now expect from the developing world, then it is inequitable and unrealistic to expect Mr. Ndiaye and millions of others not to follow us.

New Harvest’s Conference on Cellular Meat: Saturday Afternoon (4)

MeatIn July, I (Martin) attended New Harvest’s 2018 conference on cellular meat at MIT’s Media Lab. I wrote an extensive report on this valuable, informative, and very well-organized colloquium—partly as a means of grappling with the science, but also as a way to think about what role cellular meat might play in imagining a vegan America. Over the next four blogs—divided into Friday morning, Friday  afternoon, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon—I report on what was said, and reactions to it, as well as my own observations. Note: New Harvest will no doubt be putting all the talks on YouTube, and so you can check out what was said (and whether I accurately reported it) at a later date.

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The final panel in the afternoon, which was also moderated by Isha Datar, concerned itself with the issue that was shadowing the entire conference: that of regulation.

The opening talk was given by Deepti Kulkani, formerly a lawyer at the FDA and now, like Kathi Cover, at Sidley Austin. Kulkani’s aim was to address the key regulatory questions facing cell ag and what could be answered now and how. She explained how both the FDA and USDA worked. The FDA, she said, was tasked with regulating food and ingredients and determining the safety of ingredients, including those in meat, poultry, and biotechnology. The USDA, on the other hand, was responsible for meat and poultry and their products. It regulated establishments that slaughtered or processed meat and poultry and determined the accuracy of labeling and the suitability of ingredients. In regards to new ingredients in meat and poultry, the FDA, said Kulkani, had authority over “food additives” and whether they were GRAS. (Indeed, two days after the conference ended, the FDA generally recognized as safe the “heme” GMO additive that Impossible Foods had added to its burger to give it its “bloody” taste and texture.)

Kulkani then described what might be regulated and how. She mentioned that the government would be concerned with the safety of substances used in manufacturing cellular meat before it came to market: such as animal cells, the growth medium, and the scaffold. Obviously, the agency would be interested in ensuring that the finished product was safe; and it would want a clear sense of the identity and history of safe use and common knowledge of safety, as well as the margin of exposure.

Kulkani then stated that regarding the manufacturing process, the government would want to know whether the process had changed the ingredient, whether there were controls set up to control for or prevent unique hazards, levels of purity, or toxicity—a process known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). The government would also be concerned about the labeling of the product or elements of that product, and they’d wish to inspect the facility.

Kulkani noted that it was not yet self-evident that the FDA would be the ultimate agency making judgments on cell-ag’s processes and products. That the FDA had opened such hearings suggested that it certainly believed it had a role to play, but the USDA, she added, was beginning to throw its weight about by claiming that the FDA was overreaching its jurisdiction. This, she added, might simply be intra-agency chest-beating. As far as she was aware, the agencies had begun communicating with one another, which might indicate that the agencies might collaborate or divide the process under their various jurisdictions. Kulkani added that it was indicative that the FDA acknowledged in its preamble to the meeting of July 12 that although its primary concern was the safety of cell ag, how it might be labeled was also an area of interest.

As for what might happen next, Kulkani advised people to continue to make comments; that there would be a meeting before the FDA Science Board; and ultimately there would be a USDA/FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) decision on the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petition (or on naming of the product more generally). However this process continued, Kulkani concluded, it was likely that political interest would continue as would potentially federal legislation on cell ag.

Next up was Larisa Rudenko, who, like Kulkani, had formerly worked at the FDA. Rudenko’s role in the conversation was to layout the conceptual landscape from regulation to product delivery. Echoing the writer John Gardner, Rudenko noted that when it came to biotechnology, the story of innovation was either perceived as “a journey” or “a stranger comes to town”: in the former, the innovator is subject to whims of a peripatetic trek until he or she arrives at the destination; in the latter, the innovator is either perceived to be a threat to the status quo and ultimately ejected, or after initial resistance, through persistence or because she or he brings something new and valuable to the status quo, the innovator changes the nature of that place for the better, or is him- or herself incorporated into the status quo.

Last but not least was Ronald Stotish, CEO at Aquabounty, and who had been a member of the team that had “produced” the AquAdvantage Salmon, the first FDA-approved genetically modified food animal. Stotish described the long and tortuous process from the creation of the fish in 1989 to the FDA approval in 2015, the first commercial sale of the fish in Canada in 2017, and the company’s current inability to bring the fish to market in the United States.

Whether it was wise (commercially or otherwise) to produce a GMO salmon was not the reason that Stotish was addressing the conference. His purpose was to provide a case study on the problems of bringing an innovative, scientifically engineered animal-based foodstuff to regulators and thence to market. Stotish could barely contain his contempt for, animus toward, and mystification about the environmental NGOs (such as Food & Water Watch) whom, he felt, had mischaracterized the data around the salmon, had disregarded the science, had engaged in scaremongering; and had failed to engage in good faith with industry—all (so he said) in order to generate donations to their organizations.

The lessons Stotish wished to communicate from his attenuated experience to attendees who might find themselves on a similar trajectory was to be an optimist, engage early and often with those who might oppose you, and to communicate what you’re doing and why. It was vital, he said, to conduct the best science you could but not to assume it would insulate you from attack. He urged the conference to resist assuming the regulatory process was free of politics (it most emphatically wasn’t), but instead to interact politically and to develop coalitions with like-minded organizations. He added that innovators should be prepared for delays, media attacks, and setbacks, but to believe in the product and to persevere.

In the conversation following the presentations, Isha Datar asked the panel what they felt would be the worst-case scenario for cellular meat. For Rudenko, the biggest danger was that a manufacturer moved too fast, broke things, and brought a product to market without any regulatory oversight and with a safety problem. She recommended that the audience read two books: Innovation and Its Enemies by Calestous Juma and Sheila Jassanoff’s The Ethics of Invention. These two books, she said, bracketed the two viewpoints on emerging technologies that she’d mentioned in her talk. Larisa admitted that the regulatory process could also prove fraught because it was difficult to provide expertise in something that hadn’t been around before.

Datar asked the panel how concerned the USDA and traditional animal agriculture industry should be about the role of the FDA. Kulkani replied that there was a long history of the FDA and USDA working together on issues, but that there was clearly a basis of concern in the USDA’s robust criticism of FDA “overreach,” especially on a political level.

Fielding a question from the audience, Datar then asked whether the cell-ag industry should hire lawyers and lobbyists. After the titters had died down, Rudenko recommended inviting regulators to industry meetings. “Regulators are people,” she announced: they would welcome learning more about the subject they were going to regulate. With respect to politics, Rudenko continued, fearlessly mixing her metaphors, it was important to take the temperature of the landscape. Kulkani urged the industry to use the processes the agencies were making available to make the best possible case to them.

The final talk was by Nadia Berenstein, a food historian and cultural critic, who through the lens of the history of (oleo)margarine, showed how perceptions around the product (and its comparison with the more “natural” butter) altered from its inception in the late nineteenth century as an untested product, technological breakthrough, and threat to the honest dairymaid churning her butter. Berenstein reminded the audience (as if it needed reminding) that it was necessary to supply people with the cultural and social context within which to eat the food.

The conference ended with one-minute pitches from various organizations that were present, including: New Age Meats; 3-D Heals (bioprinting and lab-grown solutions); the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference; Higher Steaks; a cultured meat podcast; (a website on clean meat); New Culture (a company promoting clean dairy cultures in New Zealand; George Zeng (a producer of mushrooms, known as Loop foods); the New Omnivore (which would begin a discussion group in the Fall).

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What to make of a conference that had so many themes running through it—some of them contradictory? Many of the presenters (and not a few of the audience) were clearly driven by evidence-based convictions that traditional animal agriculture presented profound, even existential crises for food security, human wellness, environmental protection, climate-change mitigation, and animal welfare. Yet these same individuals were being urged by former regulators, fellow entrepreneurs, and their colleagues in cell ag to “play nice” with that same industry, the representatives of whom (as far as this correspondent can recall) refused to admit that their business needed to change at all, except in as much as cell ag might “improve” its products and thus, one assumes, allow for even more production of more efficient animals, more value-added processed meats, and better profit margins for beleaguered farmers.

The youthful scientists were likewise urged to make sure the safety of their products was backed up with solid data, to be transparent, to resist the siren song of systemic “disruption” in favor of incremental change, and not to be the company that ruined it for everyone else by bringing a product to market too soon. Yet nobody, as far as I can remember, asked why it was that current agribusiness was not held to account for its colossal waste of natural resources (not to say of the product itself), its poor safety levels regarding disease and meat recalls, its lack of transparency, and its manifest cruelty toward animals.

Beyond this, the presenters urged the scientists, entrepreneurs, and audience to attend closely to the construction of the narrative they wished to tell consumers and regulators about their industry and its products but to be leery of telling a story that contrasted too sharply with the prevailing story of America feeding the world—a narrative that remained unquestioned as the unimpeachable base narrative of American and global prosperity.

Ironically, the skewing of perspectives at this conference may have been a consequence (however unintentional) of not featuring plant-based companies and their ongoing inroads into the meat and dairy markets. Presenting cellular meat within the context of alternatives to conventional animal-based agriculture may have provided a focus for attendees. As it was, we were reminded that everyone in the space was in the business, in some way, of either growing animal flesh or supplementing it in some way. This may have made sense strategically—smoothing the pathway to regulation by not unnecessarily antagonizing the meat industry, its lobbyists, and vested interests in government. However, it may also have provided an opening for that same industry to coopt those seeking an early return on their investment to literally incorporate their technology within the bodies of animals destined for slaughter.

In fact, at the end of this conference, it wasn’t at all clear to me that the end of this process was a dramatic reduction in the number of farmed animals destined for slaughter, or, for that matter, a redefinition of the meaning of “meat.” Was this a diversion, a game-changer, or merely another option? Could this meeting be, in effect, a parallel to a motor carriage convention in 1895, where multiple start-ups and technologists were attempting to master a technology with huge potential and bring their various inventions to the market, all the time awaiting the scaling-up, economies of scale, and market penetration that Henry Ford would achieve with the Model T? And where should we place the emphasis: on the product itself or on the process? On the regulatory framework or the story? Did customers really care how their meat was prepared as long as it was cheap, readily available, and tasty? Would technology be a boon or a curse?

None of these questions were any clearer to me at the end of the conference than they were at the beginning. I await the Good Food Institute’s conference in September with interest.

Closing the Conservation/Animal Advocacy Gap

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

Two weekends ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Rethinking Animals Summit in New York City. As is the way with events such as this, panelists were alotted a brief amount of time for their presentation, during which most of them pitched their organization’s work (in one way or another), and then responded to questions and answers. In spite of the limitations of the format in engaging discussion and going more deeply into issues, however, two main themes stuck out for me.

The first is that conservationists—individuals who are primarily concerned with ecosystems, species survival, the wild, and “Nature” writ large—are finally recognizing the significance that the consumption of animals has for all of their concerns. From the outset, animal advocates (who’ve over the decades tended to focus on the welfare of individual animals within the human environment, and whose movement has defined itself through moral and social reform rather than environmentalism’s scientific analysis or transcendentalist aesthetic of the sublime) have found themselves at odds with those who’ve considered animals raised for food either as “unnatural,” or an invasive species, or a subject best not talked about for fear of appearing sentimental, unscientific, ideological, or insensitive to the realities that face subsistence farmers and the malnourished around the world.

The impact of globalized factory farming and monocultures of feed crops on fragile, vital ecosystems (either directly in terms of deforestation, resource use, pollution, and biodiversity loss or indirectly through adding to GHG emissions) is making it impossible to claim that our food preferences are merely personal choices with no policy or economic ramifications. This is a welcome realignment, offering the genuine possibility that we’ll finally see large environmental and social justice organizations start to work with animal protection organizations to offer a new vision of protecting the planet.

The second theme of the conference was the vital importance of the oceans. Anna Cummins of talked about the five major sites of plastic debris in the oceans; Carter and Olivia Ries, the dynamic 16- and 14-year-olds who run One More Generation, described their One Less Straw campaign, in which they are trying to make a dent in the percentage of the 500 million straws used each day in the U.S. alone that end up in the ocean and animals in that ocean. Others talked about the loss of tropical reefs and trophic cascade collapse.

Until recently, it has been hard for animal advocates to talk about fish: unlike land and air animals raised for food, fish caught and eaten are measured by the ton and not individually. Fish don’t look like us, they don’t rear their young like us, and their medium is alien to us. Furthermore, their emotional and social lives were unfamiliar, until scholars like Jonathan Balcombe gathered the research. Even so, advocates have tended to talk about high mercury and other toxic elements in fish and overfishing rather than no longer eating fish, whether wild caught or raised in tanks, because of the pain they feel or the societies we disrupt.

After this conference, it’s my judgment that animal advocates and environmentalists need to be much more forthright in how we approach the subject of eating fish. Even if it might not be possible to extend cetacean rights to fish, it seems self-evident now that those of us who can afford not to eat marine protein should stop doing so—to protect ecosystems and to allow those communities in the developing world who depend on them for their major source of protein to do so. We should argue that we need to do all we can to allow the fish populations to rebound—not just for us, but for all the other species that depend on them for survival.