The environmental cost of eating shrimp is off the charts

Two vegetarian friends of mine, through their quiet example, have caused me to improve my approach to eating, at least sometimes. Although I will never achieve a “no meat” diet, I eat less of it than before, and I look for meat that has been raised humanely and sustainably. Meat — particularly beef and pork — carry a high environmental cost that is not reflected in its price. And that, of course, is the rationale for having a carbon tax. In any event, it takes up to 7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef, according to the USDA. The ratio is about the same for pork (6.5 pounds). Chicken is significantly better at 2.6 pounds. So, the environmentally ethical human should favor chicken over beef and pork consumption. But what to eat instead?

Not shrimp, as it turns out, which is far worse:

… the US imports 90 percent of the shrimp consumed here. We now bring in a staggering 1.2 billion pounds of it annually, mainly from farms in Asia. Between 1995 and 2008, the inflation-adjusted price of wild-caught Gulf shrimp plunged 30 percent.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that plates mounded with cheap shrimp float on a veritable sea of ecological and social trouble. In his excellent 2008 book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, the Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe took a hard look at the Asian operations that supply our shrimp. His conclusion: “The simple fact is, if you’re eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from a turbid, pesticide- and antibiotic-filled, virus-laden pond in the tropical climes of one of the world’s poorest nations.”

 Lest anyone think otherwise, these factory farms generate poverty in the nations that house them, as Grescoe demonstrates; they privatize and cut down highly productive mangrove forests that once sustained fishing communities, leaving fetid dead zones in their wake.

… a new study from University of Oregon researcher J. Boone Kauffman finds that the flattening of Southeast Asian mangrove forests is devastating in another way, too…  Mangroves, it turns out, are rich stores of biodiversity and also of carbon—and when they’re cleared for farming, that carbon enters the atmosphere as climate-warming gas.

Kaufman estimates that 50 to 60 percent of shrimp farms occupy cleared mangroves, and the shrimp that emerges from them has a carbon footprint ten times higher than the most notoriously climate-destroying foodstuff I’m aware of: beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rainforest.

Kaufman calls the shrimp- farming style that prevails in Asia “the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture,” because farm operators typically “only last for 5 years or so before the buildup of sludge in the ponds and the acid sulfate soil renders them unfit for shrimp,” he told Science. (via Tom Philpott.)

If only tofu tasted better.

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About Guy N. Texas

Guy N. Texas is the pen name of a lawyer living in Dallas, who is now a liberal. He was once conservative, but this word has so morphed in meaning that he can no longer call himself that in good conscience. Guy has no political aspirations. He speaks only for himself.
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