As Head of Fish Policy at Compassion in World Farming I am only too aware of the issues surrounding fish welfare and whilst the world is becoming increasingly mindful of the impacts of factory farming on land-based farm animals, the vast majority are still in the dark when it comes to fish.
According to a recent report published by Eating Better, “The future of eating is flexitarian”. The idea is to have a number of meatless meals throughout the week, or in other words to be a part-time vegetarian. This is also referred to as ‘reducetarianism’. Embedded in this concept is the idea of reducing meat consumption.
This idea is not new. Neither are environmental, health, sustainability, and animal welfare arguments for reducing meat consumption, and more people than ever are starting to listen.
Forward thinking businesses have paid attention; a Mintel report for 2018 trends in food and drink found that ethical, environmental and human/animal welfare claims rose 22% in global products from 2016-2017. The message is getting through. The flexitarian diet is gaining momentum, but there’s a problem.
A recent article in the New Scientist on the future of sustainable eating concluded: “The takeaway for me is to have more meat free days… I could also make a point of eating more fish.”
Fuelling a crisis
Something fishy is going on. And even the forward thinking flexitarians haven’t caught on. When we say let’s reduce meat, people don’t think of fish. Even some full-time vegetarians still eat fish.
Along with Government recommendations for eating more fish and the promotion of the ‘Mediterranean diet’, fish is centrally featured on many healthy eating sections of retailers’ websites. The messaging for reduction clearly excludes fish. More than this – fish seems to be replacing meat as an alternative.
But the scales need to fall from the consumers’ eyes.
We don’t see the fish we farm and catch at sea. We see organised rows of fillets on supermarket shelves or fish on ice in markets and there’s no real appreciation of how the fish got there. This is fuelling a crisis in the way we raise and process the fish we eat, especially as demand is rising.
Fish can suffer too
According to the Marine Conservation Society, 90% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully or overexploited. Most of us are familiar with the idea of sustainability and fish – this is the main message we receive. But there is more.
Compelling evidence is growing that fish can suffer: when they are taken out of water and left to suffocate, crushing each other in their thousands, when they don’t have space to swim, when they live in parasite ridden water. Fish are often denied their most basic needs under our care, and we fuel this with our voracious appetite for them, killing them in their trillions.
This is because fish is perceived as healthy in relation to meat. But some fish have high levels of methyl mercury, which gets through the blood-brain barrier and can stay in brain tissue for years. Some fish may also contain other contaminants, to the point where pregnant women are advised not to eat fish.
But health aside, there is a large difference between what may or may not be physically healthy to eat in theory, and the true cost of consuming something. The cost of eating fish as we currently are, is to ourselves, to the sea we depend on, and to the fish.
Take fish off the menu
Eating less fish is easy, and can be very tasty. ‘Fishless fingers’ are now common in supermarkets and beer battered tofu, or ‘tofish’ and chips, can now be found on menus. There are also more niche developments in this area; for example Ocean Hugger Foods have pioneered vegan sushi and Finless Foods are developing lab grown bluefin tuna. With the help of a blender, you can even make your own animal-free king prawns from scratch. And for those essential long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids people always talk about, you can get them from algae oils, flax and chia seeds, and some nuts and beans.
So, real flexitarians, please make a stand for what real reducetarianism looks like, and take fish off the menu, as well as meat, on your vegetarian days.