Just because the fishmeal is sustainable doesn't mean it's not part of a broken system. It's the worst kind of green wash, the type that allows you to think it's ok to spend your money on low welfare, environmentally damaging and highly unethical foods
Brace yourselves, I'm about to lose it. The MSC have recently certified three major small fish fisheries in the North Sea as ‘sustainable operations.' We are talking here about the harvest of small so-called "Low Value" species on industrial levels. The Science is sound. The thinking sadly, like in so many other areas within food and environment is fundamentally flawed, and frankly, smells a bit fishy. Before I go further, in mitigation of the sledging below, the MSC has worked closely with the Danish fleet to build a robust and fairly bullet proof sustainable future for the small species that they are landing - small in individual size, there is nothing small about the harvest - some 500,000 tonnes in total. That's more than double the total annual UK white fish landings, to give you an idea of scale.
Fine, ok, so the fishery is clean, robust and above all sustainable. Now, lets look beyond the fishery. Once this 500,000 tonnes of fish is landed, it's blast frozen and this tip top, hi grade, omega oil providing, precious life-giving amino-acid rich brain food protein supply is then shared around the world to people in need of a cheap source of high quality natural protein right? All over Europe, and the rest of the world, top restaurants are serving up bucket loads of this cheap and sustainably harvested super food... amazing! brilliant!...... But alas, it's a fantasy. This "perfect example" of well-managed modern industrial fishing is feeding greed, environmental disaster, low animal welfare and generating millions in profits for the few. I'm sounding a bit anti capitalist hippy here I know, stay with me.
This precious resource is only subject to good management until it's landed. After that, it becomes just another commodity and in this case highlights for me the very worst of food culture malpractice. The main use for these perfectly human-edible, tasty and above all sustainable and super nutritious catch is... fishmeal.
These small oily fish, this natural gold dust, is rendered into powder form and then used as additives. Some, tip top grade oils will be extracted along the way to go into dietary supplements - ironically - for human consumption but the vast majority of the tonnage will go into feed for animals for people to eat. Pigs are often (in intensive rearing units) fed a "tiny" percentage of this fishmeal in a pellet made of soya and cereals and plant oils at the very early stages of life so that the piglets can be weaned 14 days earlier than if they had been left suckling on the sow. The fishmeal replaces the essential amino acids in the mother's milk. The pig industry - interestingly very much centred in Denmark - will tell you this is a good thing as it makes life easier for the mother sow. What they actually mean is that they can get her back into farrow sooner so she can get on with gestating the next batch of piglets. ASAP.
The biggest consumer though, of fishmeal, is aquaculture. We are talking fish farming here and yes, farming cold blooded creatures such as fish is FAR more efficient than farming warm blooded animals as they don't waste precious energy keeping warm, they just get bigger. We are talking salmon here, mostly, and salmon farming is one of the worst culprits of environmental pollution within food production, although it has cleaned up its act quite rapidly of late.
Disease, and damage caused by the hi-intensity of fish 'throughput' in the majority of farms has partially been responsible for the decimation of wild stocks of salmon. It's very well documented. Of course this is seen as acceptable because the world needs feeding, and fish farming is a good way to do that. Only it's not is it? If we ate the fish that were harvested form the sea directly we could immediately do away with 500,000 tonnes of farmed Salmon right? But of course, salmon is valuable, salmon is plump, and it's not full of bones. Global Atlantic salmon farming in 2010 was estimated at 2.4 million tonnes.
So, by my reckoning, just by eating the Danish fishmeal fish directly to human consumption we could cut environmentally dubious salmon aquaculture globally by 1/5th. Actually, it's probably better than that as there is a little thing called a food (or feed) conversion ratio. This is the amount of something required to create a similar amount of something else. If, we take the golden example of livestock farming as being a way of storing an overly abundant crop that cannot be used locally or transported easily elsewhere, then it's a good thing; it prevents waste and efficiently stores some of the value for that food for later on. For example, a cow eats grass, and eventually you get beef. But of course you do not get 1kg of beef for every kilo of grass eaten. It's the same with fish, exactly what the conversion ratio of wild fish to farmed fish is remains debatable - some say its 4 to 1, some as little as 1.5 to 1. The point is simply this: you get out less than you put it. It's the same with all animal farming, to a greater or lesser extent we would be better off (environmentally) eating the feed resource that is being used to feed the animals.
We are told, of course, that people won't eat the small fish. People want big, plump, boneless fish. I'm pretty sure that anyone who was hungry would happily eat a nice plate of crispy sprat, or sand eels - they are delicious after all. I'd like to blame industry here, I'd like to point the fiery finger of blame at the Danish fishing fleet, or the Scottish salmon farmers or the Intensive pig units. Anywhere. Anywhere would be better than admitting the hard truth: Once again, the problem here is willing complicity on behalf of the consumer. We do prefer the well-marketed salmon slabs to the small oily fish, or at least we think we do, but how many of us have actually tried the others? We are guilty, in the main, of wanting cheap pork, but would we really go without if the price were higher? Would anyone's life simply not be worth living if they could only have bacon and salmon say, 10 times a year?
Yes, I applaud the MSC and Denmark for making their fishing industry so sustainable, scientific and efficient. But I don't buy the bigger picture, the implied environmental soundness of fishmeal production and the systems it supports. Just because the fishmeal is sustainable doesn't mean it's not part of a broken system.
It's the worst kind of green wash - the type that allows you to think it's ok to spend your money on low welfare, environmentally damaging and highly unethical foods simply because you can afford to and someone has cleverly marketed it to you. Maybe I am wrong, maybe we shouldn't be eating the small fish directly, maybe this long and convoluted system of passing that goodness from one animal to another for our eventual consumption further down the line is how things are meant to be. Maybe this wasp-waste part of oceanic eco web is the answer to our prayers - we can have cheap salmon and be sustainable. Spare me.
So, buy all means pop the cork for the MSC certification of the Danish fishmeal fleet, but make sure you are eating sand eels, sprats and pouting as the canapés, otherwise, you are not allowed to the party....
Tim is a private chef and food writer living in east Devon. After leaving River Cottage having held the reigns at the Rover Cottage Canteen in Axminster for four years he has continued to work within the sphere of sustainably produced, seasonal and tasty food. Ethos and Seasonality are at the core of his foodie musings, his fascination with environment and how our food production systems impact upon it are always central to the work he does, both in the kitchen and at the writing desk