Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood / Taras Grescoe -- NY: Bloomsbury, 2008.

This is a book that will depress most rational readers. This is especially true if you enjoy eating fish and seafood, whether for pleasure, health, or ethical/political reasons. The author enjoys seafood for all of the above reasons, but his worldwide travels investigating the quality and sustainability of the world’s seafood yield a very frightening picture. The vast majority of fish caught these days are from species of rapidly diminishing quantity and quality (both taste-wise and for one’s health), and are caught in non-sustainable, exploitative ways. That Grescoe remains committed to producing and consuming fish in ways that are sustainable, tasty, healthy, and non-exploitative is commendable—but the enormity of the task is daunting, to say the least, because of the force arrayed against it.

I say force, singular, because, as with almost all of humankind’s other problems, the main driving mechanism behind the vanishing seafood is industrial capitalism (including, of course, the Chinese version, these days). Fishing and fish-farming are now dominated by huge corporations, able to marshal vast resources to catch (devastate) entire species, and much of the demand for many threatened species is due to increasing numbers of very wealthy consumers. Global warming, pollution, exploitable cheap labor, artificial (toxic) growing conditions and feeding habits, waste, externalization of costs, etc, all play interconnected roles in helping reduce what were once thought to be effectively infinite numbers of fish down to near extinction levels in case after case. And, of course, all the above factors are caused or exacerbated by industrial capitalism, whose course, if unchanged, will make it very unlikely that much healthy seafood will remain in the world within a few decades.

Grescoe is a very engaging and interesting writer on all aspects of the issue, so the book is a “pleasure” to read in that sense, with large amounts of local color and fascinating facts about seafood and the social relations surrounding its production and consumption. He himself both consumes, and visits the production sites of, many types of seafood, including some extremely exotic and even dangerous ones. Although not explicitly ideological, he is intrepid and successful in analyzing what could be done “rationally” to remedy the situation, and in listing ways by which one can make individual consumption choices that promote health, quality, sustainability, and fair labor conditions. The title refers to the fact that smaller fish at the “bottom” of the food chain in the oceans, such as, say, anchovies, are generally much better consumer eating choices than large predators such as tuna. And he lists some environmental organizations' websites for "certifiably" good product choices, which are again very helpful to the individual consumer.

The catch, of course, is that the profit motive of industrial capitalism is arrayed against such rational, individualistic solutions, and is of vastly greater potency, at least so far. Unless an alternative to growth-oriented industrial capitalism is found (and soon), no solution to the problem of vanishing seafood (or global warming, or so many other current environmental problems) will be remotely feasible. I highly recommend the book, depressing as it is, for it makes very clear both that we have little time left to begin to seriously address such problems, and what we will be losing if we fail to do so.

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