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.

Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

More carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere today than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Models suggest that even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tomorrow, the warming effects of almost two centuries of pumping tons of carbon into the air will last decades, with devastating consequences. Given that we’re neither eliminating nor reducing carbon emissions, those increasingly severe effects will likely last long into the next century and indeed may even lead to further release of GHGs independent of any anthropogenic factors.

Because of the potential for runaway climate change (the rain forests dry out and catch fire; the melting tundra releases its vast stores of methane) to reduce the ability of Earth to sustain human life at all, it’s no longer alarmist to think that 200,000 years of homo sapiens and our various civilizations may come to an end within a lifetime, unless we start genuinely thinking beyond what is currently “acceptable,” “feasible,” “sustainable,” and so on.

It’s happened before; Jared Diamond has written about human societies that fell into rapid decline and eventual extinction after consuming too many resources and being unable to sustain that consumption or replace those resources through conquest or colonization. But these losses were local and not planetary. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility offers the kind of realization that Samuel Johnson said “concentrates [a] mind wonderfully.” We must either face difficult, unpalatable, and even excruciating choices now over who gets to live where and how, or we must take the risk and potentially face challenges where there is no element of choice available.

For several years, Brighter Green has been studying the globalization of industrial animal agriculture through the lens of climate change. Animal-based agriculture—both intensive and extensive—contribute anywhere from 14.5 to 51 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. A March 2016 report by Oxford University and the American Academy of Sciences suggested that a vegetarian diet—and even more so a vegan one—would dramatically reduce GHG emissions, lower the cost-burden on public health, and allow human beings to be much more productive, among other benefits. So, simply as a means of reducing climate change, veganism is good to think (with).

A few people reading the above will declare that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by careerist scientists eager for government grants who for ideological reasons depress data that contradict the models. The more reasonable skeptics might point out that climate change is real but that humans don’t cause it; or, if we do, that its effects are unknowable and may, indeed, benefit some regions at the expense of others. Some of these might say that veganism is merely a personal choice—as are all diets and lifestyles—and that the rest of the world’s rush to eat more animal products shows that meat-eating is natural. They might add that denying those in the developing world the possibility of eating animal products is, in fact, unjust and imperialist—as is the effort to stop countries from industrializing using the same fossil fuel–based technologies that developed nations employed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Obviously, the Vegan America Project resists such arguments. But our purpose is not to argue the case for climate change or the validity of veganism. As my previous blog suggests, it’s not only a means of thinking about how we might mitigate or adapt to climate change, but it conceptualizes how we’ll mostly likely need to think about a host of other issues: access to potable water, land use, fossil fuels as a whole, energy sources, population pressures, and the rights of the individual and liberal democracy (broadly conceived) in a time of mass migrations and collapsing nation states. These will be realities in the future, because they’re realities now.

As I suggested in an earlier blog, it certainly could be argued that there are more moderate ways to achieve lower GHG emissions through diet, by, for instance, eating less meat, as the Chinese government is currently urging its citizens to do. Likewise, “improvements” that bioengineer food animals to stop belching or farting and producing methane, or hooking these animals up to methane-extractors to utilize their GHG emissions for energy, might help. Eating only chickens instead of cows would reduce the carbon footprint somewhat. We might bioengineer we animals as well! And these supposed “solutions” to reduce GHG emissions could, of course, be accompanied by improvements in efficiency in the energy, transportation, and building sectors so we can continue to eat more meat and dairy products and hold or reduce GHG emissions.

At the moment, a general scattershot ameliorism may be all we have available to us. The financial and short-term policy requirements for those seeking election and re-election; the need for publically traded corporations to satisfy the stock market and share holders each quarter, which may depress necessary but expensive and uncertain investments in research and development; a global population eager to consume meat and other products associated with status and success, and a rush to provide as much energy as necessary to meet those aspirations; the task of figuring out how to develop long-term and resilient infrastructure using current technology given the unforeseeable needs of greater human populations in a more uncertain physical environment in two or three decades:—all these work against the systemic change and long-term planning that are necessary in favor of a “do-able” hodge-podge of half-measures and even conflicting impulses that, the data suggest, might not be enough to avert the catastrophe that a seven-degree Celsius global temperature increase would unleash.

Now, it’s true that technology may solve some of our problems, whether we invest substantially in the short run to shift the course of climate change now, or do so through incremental change that would alter outcomes much further down the road. It’s possible that in fifty or a hundred years we may be able to engineer our way out of future warming, and even (unlikely as it may seem now) not merely mitigate but reverse the effects of climate change. But these are enormous and very risky wagers to place.

In the interim, we’re still using finite natural resources on a planet with ecological limits. Do we really want to produce food that is inexpensive and widely available only because of cheap fossil fuels, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water that are either now running out or need to be left in the ground if we are to meet even the most limited of our goals for reducing global temperature rise? Given the reality that many tens of millions of us need to eat fewer animal products, and many tens of millions want to eat more of them, who will decide who eats less and who gets to eat more? How much meat and dairy is enough for us to be well fed, or feel successful, or will be made sick by before we say “enough”? How can the real price be set, how will the externalized costs be paid for, and who will bear the burden of paying for them?

These are genuinely complicated and challenging questions, involving issues of food supply and equity. But am I wrong to feel there’s something wrong-headed or defeatist about saying that they’re too complicated or challenging to be considered? Why should we assume that human behavior and appetites are unchangeable? We’re an adaptable species: why can’t cultures evolve or change to reimagine the status we assign to meat and dairy? Why be so parsimonious and fragile in our vision of the possible when confronted with a challenge as broad and encompassing as climate change? In other words, why not insert equity, animal rights, and a bold imagination into a vision for the future? Why not toughen and tighten the demands that we assign to notions of “sustainability” and “resilience”? Why not offer proscriptions and prescriptions that might be less inadequate to the task at hand?

To that extent, might run a different kind of objection, why only Vegan America? Why not Vegan Earth? As indicated earlier, Brighter Green has conducted many analyses of the role of meat and dairy in developing and industrialized countries, mainly through the lens of climate change. So, we’re aware the world is integrated and trade and communication becoming still more globalized. We know that borders are porous and nation states combine and recombine in trading regions, political unions, and defensive or offensive blocs. Climate change will enhance the need for international cooperation and also exacerbate local, national, and regional tensions.

Furthermore, we know that air or land migration doesn’t stop at national borders, or that pollution and water usage can be contained within political boundaries. Any policy on wild birds, large predators, and marine animals will, of course, necessitate transnational engagement. Nonetheless, we thought it was necessary to choose a country (yes, our Canadian friends, we know that America isn’t a country, but Vegan USA or Vegan United States just isn’t as catchy) because it’s a defined geopolitical unit and, therefore, provides some means of delimiting what is, obviously, an enormous and expansive undertaking.

To that extent, therefore, both “vegan” and “America” are, like the Project itself, essentially heuristic: a way to think somewhere so we might think anywhere. Every nation state is going to have to grapple sooner or later with the very meaning of the nation state in a world where independent survival will require interdependent governments, industries, and peoples to think their way into the future utilizing their own cultural realities and social, natural, political, and financial capital. Vegan America offers one kind of model.

In the next blog, I offer some thoughts on why the United States might be a good place to start this project.