Food Sustainability – building awareness and does it affect your shopping/dining choices?


As I type this, I have just finished watching a television program documentary on protecting the world’s declining fish stocks and the dangers of extinction facing many of the ocean’s inhabitants due to overfishing and growing human consumption for seafood. Some interesting and frightening stories and data are emerged as the producers traveled around the world to explore this issue that is affecting the entire planet. Some sub-plots and highlights from the show…

– In Ireland, at a global conference on ocean sustainability, a keynote speaker is talking about the growing number of the world’s fisheries on the verge of collapse. Tuna, swordfish, marlin stocks are at a tenth of the level they were in 1950.

– In Newfoundland (Canada), former cod fishermen are interviewed about the heydays of the 1980’s before the industry suffered a complete collapse in the early 1990’s. Startling statistics show the dramatic drop in landed cod volumes: 380,000 tons in 1986, to just 914 tons in 1995.

– A marine biologist is interviewed, who states that of the world’s total fish supplies, 50% of the species we cannot catch any more, and a further 30% are in clear decline.

– A paper that appeared in the AAAS’s Science Magazine (Nov 2006 issue) concludes that “marine diversity loss is increasingly impairing the ocean’s capacity to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from perturbations”. Predictions of the world’s oceans facing a total collapse as soon as 2048 if current trends continue. But the authors note that “available data suggest that at this point, these trends are still reversible”.

– According to the FAO, Japan has the highest per capita annual consumption rate of fish, at 65kg per person. Though its interesting to note that as of 2003, China’s total consumption has increased 83% over the previous 10 years (now at 33.8 million tons); over the same time period, Japan’s had declined by 1% (now at 8.3 million tons), and the USA had increased 17% (now at 7 million tons).

– In London, its reported there are over fifty sushi restaurants, most of them successful. The growing demands of previously low fish consuming countries due to trends for healthy food, popularity of Japanese cuisine, etc. are reported as some of the leading reasons for the increased per capita consumption of fish in places such as the UK and China.

– Similar to what you see in Vancouver with the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, that was created to “help restaurants and their customers make environmentally friendly seafood choices”, the documentary followed the activities of the a fishery in Hastings (UK) as they worked to attain certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for their seafood eco-label that recognizes and rewards sustainable fishing. As well, a MSC evaluator is followed to a crab fishery in northern Hokkaido that has seen its catch volumes drop to 59 tons/year after a high of 267 tons just a decade previous, as it tries to become the first Japan-based fishery to gain this MSC status.

A very engaging program that has captured stories from around the world and at different levels, to raise awareness of this ongoing problem that is affecting us all. It stuck me just how wide ranging this issue is and how desperate the situation is in many places and the impact economically it is having on every day people in their lives.

—–

Here locally, I’ve recently learned of Eat BC! – that works to decrease our environmental impact, asking British Columbians to support local growers and suppliers in order to help the environment by reducing carbon footprints (due to shipping/fueling costs of food transportation).

As well, I recently attended the Fourth Annual Farmade event at the University of British Columbia Farm. It was a festival/gathering to create a public forum, provide support and engage people in the discussion on the importance of the need for agricultural sustainability.

As I walked to the farm for the first time, I passed by numerous trees with wild berries. I collected a few big handfuls of them to take home. I was so pleased to see these growing so close by, and I was not the only one who was in the bushes picking them off the trees that lined the road. Funny how I saw the exact same berries in nice plastic packs and from California, on the shelves of my neighborhood grocery store.

On-site, it was great to see the large fenced-in area for the chickens. Growing up, I had a chicken coup in my backyard and can fondly recall going out in the mornings to collect fresh eggs. A decent sized crowd was already there, visiting the various small tables with information on assorted food, sustainability, and environment topics, as well as some speakers and live music entertainers.

Not to leave out the food component, the organizers made sure to have a steady supply of hamburgers (with buckets of freshly picked greens from the farm as toppings) and farm fresh corn.

I hope all of the money collected does go towards helping the future of this farm. Every little bit helps.

UBC Farm has been the subject of rumors of being downsized or replaced entirely to make way for the growing urban development on campus, much to the dismay of the many fans of the farm who value it for creating the bond with the community and teaching about the importance of how our land sustains our lives.

Through all of these bits of information and activities that I’ve taken in, I began to wonder just what affect it really is having on both me, and perhaps our readers as well. Myself, I do my best to buy local. But its probably more for the freshness and sense that I’d like to contribute in my small way to the local producers and economy. As to the more long term effects that it may have, it is probably not front of mind. Probably because the struggles and damage that is being done out there, is not so visible up-close-and-personal in my daily life. But the more I learn and am exposed to, I think my mindset is changing and consciously it will influence my buying/dining decisions. Simply put, its the principle. I do not claim to promise that I will change everything that I do when it comes to choosing the “right” way, but will do my best.

I’d be interested in hearing about your current stance on these issues, efforts you are taking and your current value set when it comes to how much we as beings on this planet should take responsibility for the changes that are happening out there on our farmer’s fields and in our oceans.

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12 thoughts on “Food Sustainability – building awareness and does it affect your shopping/dining choices?

  1. So many issues, so little time.

    I believe the key to most ills could be moderation. I do not believe that consumption of foods is the biggest challenge to food and livestock sustainability, but the waste of consumable goods plays a bigger role to that effect.
    Having lived not only in Las Vegas, but also having worked in the cruise ship industry gave me a first hand look at the issues of waste and over consumption by all of us on all levels.
    On the other hand of course, you do have an increased affluent population base in the developing world, which the German Chancellor Merkel recently commented correctly can now afford two meals a day, which undoubtedly is making an impact on the food chain. Not only in terms of price of commodities, but also in sustainability. ( She got hammered big time for that comment)

    Maybe this current economic down turn will give us all a chance to pause for a moment and analyze our NEEDS versus WANTS in regards to food consumption and our relationship with planet earth.

    On a more radical note, we should all look at information given to us about endangered species, causes of global warming, etc., with an open mind on what the messenger’s true colors are.

    I stick with moderation.

  2. > H.Peter

    Appreciate your comment. Consumption, or rather increased consumption or wasteful consumption is indeed a big issue. My experience traveling around several developing countries in SE Asia has also given me a greater awareness about all the waste that goes on in more developed societies when it comes to food. I also found that once a people start making a shift to more affluent lives that involve better qualities and quantities of food, the mindset of how their predecessors used to take greater care of the land, the sea, etc. I find is lost on the younger generations. So I can definitely understand the German Chancellor’s point there, despite how politically insensitive it might appear to be.

    The Las Vegas/cruise ship world certainly ain’t reality. 🙂 I am sure you would find it being a hard task to get those in those “worlds” to appreciate the needs/wants balance. A shame though, as that excessive way of living is one of the more manageable in terms of putting a stop to the waste.

    Moderation is nice, perhaps a more equitable way in handling this situation, or any situation for that matter. But the more and more I read, see and experience what is going on with our food supply, I begin to see that simply taking baby steps through moderation, will not help stem the negative flow that is happening out there. By no means am I a card carrying member of the “sky is falling” crowd, but the hard data and facts that are coming out from what I see as reputable and non-agenda motivated individuals, the more I fear for what may happen.

  3. Nice article.

    Here in Toronto there is a big movement towards local, Ontario-grown produce. Unfortunately it’s often only showcased in more upscale restaurants even though the cost is relatively the same as imported produce. I think it’s mainly because it wouldn’t buy the average restaurant much to go out of their way to ensure most of the food they purchase is grown locally. And the chain restaurants have contracts or even their own farms (usually not local).

    But yeah, buying locally grown is only part of the equation. Sustainable farming and fishing is another part. The unfortunate part about sustainability is that it’s often not the most profitable way to run a business. If you’re competing against other farms/fisheries which don’t follow sustainable practices and cut corners at the cost of the environment, you can’t win. And to convince consumers that they should pay more for sustainably produced food is difficult. Typically it’s only the more affluent families which can afford to pay attention. And even then, they may not have the time or expertise to do homework on all the products they buy. With the current “green” product trend and unregulated labeling/misinformation it’s very hard to tell which products to buy.

    Really, I think it comes down to governments stepping in and providing incentive for businesses to invest in and practice sustainability. This is another great example of investing in the industries of the future — developing knowledge, expertise, and even technology related to sustainable food production would stand Canada (and other countries) well moving forward into a future where it’ll be a necessity. Instead, we pay lip service to environmental concerns and pretend oil will last forever. I guess it’ll last for a couple more 4 year terms, and that’s all that matters in politics.

    If you’re interested in these types of issues, you should check out the discussion surrounding the Massive Change exhibit:

    http://www.massivechange.com/

    It’s a bit old now, but there’s some really interesting thinking on sustainability in all areas of living. Even raises some very controversial topics like genetic food modification for increased yields in relation to the food shortage problem. As with any good art exhibit, it stirs a lot of thought and discussion.

  4. >auxio

    Thanks for dropping by!

    You mention that sustainability and business sense don’t often mix. In that television documentary, they showed examples of the opposite being true, which is a bright spot for this whole movement.

    That Hastings, UK fishery that was shown, had worked to get that MSC labeling, and the fishermen themselves said that they were now getting 5%-10% premium for this catch now, as compared to the past. Even the local restaurants had caught the wave, and saw increased business for the dishes they served that were denoted as being MSC certified. The local public had been supportive of both sides, the fishermen and the businesses down-the-line on this food chain, and so that was key.

    And that Japanese crab fishery’s leaders noted that the reason they were jumping through all these MSC hurdles to get the designation was to gain a competitive edge for their product. And they saw it as the only way to survive. These are just two small examples, but clearly the model works, and there is an acceptance on the part of the end user/buying public. Education and awareness building is key. And its a long haul effort.

    You raise a good point. These efforts need the help of government, even though there are those who detest interference and intervention by our public leaders and will put up a fight. The investments required are no small dollar number, as is the cost is getting regulations set up, followed and have monitored for compliance. GMO’s I’ve dealt with in a previous job, and know how contentious it is. But for those countries where resources are scarce and increased yields are a beacon of hope, sometimes depending more on science does have its benefits.

  5. Yes, in the US especially, the religion seems to be “government is evil” and “the market will take care of itself”. I particularly noted this sentiment in a discussion forum about the EU soon mandating that all cell phones must have removable batteries for recycling purposes (i.e. removable by a layman). Many Americans were trying to spin it as EU protectionism for EU companies even though it’s clearly for environmental reasons.

    Even in your example of MSC labeling, there must be regulation on who can use that label (and gain competitive advantage). So it does require government intervention at some level because you need legislation to enforce who can and can’t use that label. Even if the body which polices the marketplace is separate from the government, the legislation must still be created and passed. Although the risk of corruption in the policing body seems higher to me if it’s not done by the government (not to say there’s no corruption in government). 🙂

    And you’re right, there are many cases where sustainability makes business sense. In those instances I definitely say the government doesn’t need to get involved and the market will take care of itself. However, people always assume government involvement needs to be tax breaks and grants (i.e. money directly to businesses), where it can be something as simple as funding for programs which educate the public about the issues and create demand for sustainable goods. Which will then translate into a competitive advantage for businesses who invest in sustainability (again, as shown by your MSC case).

  6. I find it sadly ironic that all the healthy food eating guides say have more fish in your diet, and yet soon we may not have any more fish available to us. It’s a dilemma that I haven’t quite reconciled. I’m still struggling over farmed vs. wild salmon. I’ve made an effort to eat more sustainable fish like sardines, but haven’t cut out all other fish from my diet.

    RE: Vegas food waste – I saw a documentary on Las Vegas that mentioned food waste going to a pig farm. There’s some info here: http://ndep.nv.gov/recycl/reclvhr.htm (under MGM Grand).

  7. > auxio

    In that documentary, it seemed that they did not delve much into the government legislation side of things with the MSC. Rather any policing of the label usage was done by the organization itself. Since there are only about 25 fisheries around the world who are currently certified I think its still manageable for them. But much like all those counterfeiters who paste Olympics or Disney logos on anything they can make to make their products look legit, I am sure they might run into some impostors at some point in time. There are always those who will try to get on board without paying the proper price or respecting the process.

  8. >bruleeblog

    Some might say those same health food guides trumpeting more fish in your diet is better, is leading to the growing consumption levels and hence greater demand on the oceans to produce. It is indeed a Catch-22.

    You raise an interesting topic with the whole farmed versus wild debate. I know just from my own salmon sport fishing experiencing this fall, that its clear that available salmon are getting harder and harder to find. And the ones we do catch are getting smaller than in season’s past, even compared to last year!

    Being more conscious of eating sustainable fish, is indeed a good thing to think about, though as you say, its hard for me to cut out some fish as I would just miss them so much.

  9. Re: Waste in Vegas.
    It is still waste.
    The numbers are staggering. 45 Million visitors/year, say 2 meals/day, say only 20% leave excess food on plates….that’s a lot of swine feed.

    My point about moderation is certainly a blue eyed aproach to a challenge ahead, yet consider it food for thought, if nothing else.
    If it is true that 66% of the North American population has a varied degree of weight issues (mine being north of 10kg) and we all go back to our ideal weight………

  10. > H.Peter

    Those are some staggering numbers. What I was suggesting is that I think a mentality shift will be hard to come by among those people, so cutting that waste will be hard. The overindulgence on holidays (such as most of the tourists and their all-you-can-eat buffet selections) is no doubt contributing to those weight issues you mention.

  11. >i love food blog

    I commend your actual efforts to help the UBC Farm. It sure does offer many things to the local community and hope it can stay alive for as long as it can, to teach us where our food comes from.

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