Recently, a diary was published about the horrors of Asian shrimp aquaculture, an industrialized process which has a carbon footprint 10 times greater than that of feedlot beef farming and has done untold environmental damage to the coastal regions where it is being carried out.
This issue should be of great concern to Americans, since the vast majority of the shrimp sold in our nation's restaurants and grocery stores comes from these Asian factory farms.
I join the diarist in advocating for policies which will stop the importation to the United States of Asian factory farmed seafood, not just because of environmental concerns, but because of fears that such shrimp carries a great risk of being contaminated and leading to serious health issues.
But the diarist and I parted ways when I talked in the comments about joining a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) co-op to get my meat and seafood from local, sustainable sources.
After going back and forth for a few comments, the diarist said this in response to one of my posts:
Meat & seafood are unsustainable no matter how they are raised.. besides carbon they use too much water and land.My reply was: Simply. Not. True. Follow me below the fold for the rest of the story, and what will be a factual and, I hope most will agree, thoughtful analysis showing why I believe reducing the fight against industrialized food production to a spat between Vegans and Carnivores will not solve the problem.
I was born in Ocala, Florida - located in almost the exact geographic center of the state - in 1960. Other than two years at college in Tampa and stints in the Florida Keys for about five years and the north Florida town of Lake City for a year and a half, I've spent my entire life in Ocala, and am currently living in the house my family built on what was then the southeastern outskirts of town just before I was born.
My parents moved to Ocala from Wisconsin in 1952. According to the 1950 Census, Ocala's population two years before my parents arrived was 11,743, and that of unincorporated Marion County was 24,059. In 1960, when I was born, the city had "grown" to 13,598 and the unincorporated county to 35,223. In the 2010 Census, Ocala had reached 56,315, while the unincorporated county had grown to 267,800.
When my parents moved here, about a third of the population of Marion County lived in Ocala and roughly the other two-thirds in unincorporated areas. When I was born, the percentages had shifted slightly, with about a quarter of the population in Ocala and about three-quarters in the unincorporated county. Interestingly, the share of the population living in the other four incorporated towns in Marion County - Belleview, Dunnellon, McIntosh and Reddick - remained steady at about 6 percent. Today, a full 81 percent of the population in Marion County lives in unincorporated areas, compared to just 17 percent within the Ocala city limits and 2 percent in the other four incorporated towns. That's important to one of the points I want to make in this diary.
When I was growing up, much of unincorporated Marion County was in a natural state, but quite a lot of it was also used for various forms of agriculture and farming. Thoroughbred horse breeding has been a big part of Ocala/Marion County's identity for decades. Livestock ranching and fruit and vegetable farming were also major components of our economy for more than a century after the town of Ocala was founded in 1848.
As a boy, I remember my uncle (who once operated his own dairy but, by the time I was born, had switched to buying tractors and other farm equipment and hiring himself out to local farmers) bringing us watermelons every summer from the farms he plowed and helped harvest. We used to buy most of our meat from a small butcher shop less than two miles from our house, and while I never thought as a boy to ask him where he bought the meat, I'm pretty sure it was from one or more of the many, many livestock ranches in North Central Florida. Likewise, we could buy fresh citrus from local growers at a packing house (now long gone) on Pine Street (U.S. 441). And we kids picked gallons of fresh blackberries every spring and summer from the bushes which grew wild in the field and along the edge of the woods behind our house.
Citrus, mostly oranges, was a huge business in Marion County and many of the counties to the south. Lake Weir, a large lake a few miles south of my house, was ringed by orange groves, and in addition to visits to that wonderful old packing house on Pine Street, I have two vivid boyhood memories tied to the citrus industry - smelling the orange blossoms almost the entire length of the trip from Ocala to Orlando on Highway 441, and seeing strings of bright yellow-orange Fruit Growers Express refrigerator cars on trains trundling through town.
In the 1970s, Ocala/Marion County began to grow exponentially. For a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were rated the third fastest-growing community in the country as Ocala and the surrounding area became more industrialized.
Since 1980, however, much of the explosive growth in the unincorporated parts of the county has been concentrated in sprawling retirement communities which have supplanted farms and ranches west and south of Ocala. And with that growth has come a host of environmental, population and traffic problems.
It is that history which informs most of my opinions about land use and growth management, issues I began to specialize in when I became a newspaper reporter in 1981.
My interest in land use and growth management issues has also led me to become a fan of the "Locavore" movement - the idea that we should seek to obtain as much of the food we eat as possible from sources within 100 miles of our homes. Two books which have influenced my thinking heavily are Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
I must point out here that I'm very fortunate to live where I do - in the center of a state which, though becoming increasingly urbanized, still provides a rich variety of food choices. Plant City, to the south, is a world-famous growing center for strawberries, and blueberry farms can be found all over the state, including many in the Ocala area. While citrus is no longer king in Central Florida, there are still plenty of places one can get citrus from within 100 miles, and I also have the option of planting my own citrus trees. We are well within 100 miles of several commercial fishing fleets providing fresh seafood on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. And while many local farms have given way to residential development, there are still a few producing a wide variety of vegetables and meat products in Marion County, and a farmer's market is held on the square in downtown Ocala every Saturday morning.
But eating locally is only part of the equation. Buying local seafood, for example, isn't necessarily good if doing so encourages overfishing or the destruction of marine habitat. So my next step was seeking to buy products produced in a sustainable fashion.
That's why I was excited to learn that a CSA called Florida Fields to Forks had begun serving my community. Based in Melbourne, near the Atlantic coast east of Orlando, one of the FFTF partner farms (and a pick-up point for items produced by the CSA's partners) is the 4 Arrows Ranch in Citra, located in northern Marion County.
FFTF practices a concept known as "Beyond Organic." That's an acknowledgement that, in determining what qualifies as "organic" in the United States, the federal government predictably compromised with corporate interests to water down the meaning of the word. Hence the "organic" beef one buys in the Greenwise section at Publix may well have been finished in an industrial feed lot, "free-range" chickens may have only freely ranged on a concrete slab, and "organic" vegetables may not necessarily be grown in a sustainable fashion.
Beyond Organic means the food is produced in much the way it was before modern technology turned food production from a farming endeavor into an industrial one. Livestock is raised in pastures and eats raw native plants and nothing but raw native plants, which means the meat and milk they produce is better for you. Chickens really do range freely and forage, meaning their meat and eggs contain more healthy nutrients and less of the bad stuff, fat and bad cholesterol. Vegetables are grown without chemical fertilizers or insecticides. And our CSA even occasionally includes seafood, provided by a contract commercial fisherman who uses sustainable practices.
I spoke briefly about this CSA in the comment thread of the diary linked at the top of this diary. In return, I was confronted with that comment I included above the fold:
Meat & seafood are unsustainable no matter how they are raised.. besides carbon they use too much water and land.In trying to argue against that blanket statement, I pointed out that vegetable farms can also have a high carbon footprint, use tremendous amounts of water and land, and can have devastating effects on the environment through the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. For example, there's no doubt that citrus fruit is good for you, but there's also no denying the fact that Lake Weir in southern Marion County has become a much healthier ecosystem since a hard freeze destroyed the surrounding orange groves whose fertilizer and pesticide runoff had nearly rendered the lake dead by the late 1970s.
I was essentially told that doesn't matter, because even though agriculture can have negative side effects, meat and seafood production are worse.
That shows a basic misunderstanding of what sustainability means. Sustainability does not mean that we can only choose those things which have the least negative impacts on ourselves and our world. It means reducing the negative impacts of everything we do to manageable levels, while maximizing the benefits.
For example, there's no question that the world would be a better place if bicycles were the only form of land transportation and pure sail power the only way we could cross the water. But that's not likely to happen for a variety of reasons. So the goal of sustainability is to reduce the carbon footprints and environmental impacts of all the forms of transportation we do use.
Sustainability does not dictate that we stop living in houses or working in commercial buildings. It does have the goal of reducing the carbon footprints and increasing the land and water use efficiency of the buildings we construct.
And when it comes to food, sustainability does not dictate that we stop eating meat and seafood. It does have the goal of reducing the impacts of bringing that meat and seafood to the tables of those who choose to eat it.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Ocala and Marion County have changed a lot since I was a boy. I invite anyone who lives within driving distance to visit here sometime. Seek out State Road 200, which intersects with both I-75 and Highway 441 in Ocala, and drive west.
What was once a two-lane rural road is now a six-lane highway, lined on both sides for mile after mile with retirement developments and the strip shopping centers which serve them. Thousands of homes are packed into a concentrated space. Tens of thousands of people living in those communities drive mostly gas-guzzling luxury cars and SUVs along Highway 200, spewing tons of carbon pollution into our air. Immaculate and lush green lawns, dictated by deed restrictions to be kept immaculate and green, are maintained that way by hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and tons of chemical fertilizer and insecticides. And don't even get me started on the environmental impact of the golf courses.
Now return to downtown Ocala and head north on Highway 441, then northeast on Highway 301 to Citra. Turn east on County Road 318. It's still a two-lane rural road, and you will only encounter the occasional car. On your left, a couple of miles east of Citra, is the 4 Arrows Ranch (follow the link for a photo slideshow). As you pass through the gate, you'll find yourself on a narrow lane lined with native hardwood forest. Shortly, you'll begin seeing open meadowland, where you'll spot horses, cattle, pigs and even some emu and a herd of captive deer grazing on native grasses or resting in the shade of ancient live oak trees next to ponds. Domestic and wild geese, along with sandhill cranes, also forage on the land. The owners maintain the property in as natural a state as possible, and slaughter only the animals they need to fulfill orders from local restaurants and the CSA.
Remind yourself that the massive retirement developments you saw on Highway 200 replaced ranches just like this one. Then ask yourself which is a better use of the land? Which is more "sustainable?" As someone who lives here, and has lived here for five decades, there's no question in my mind, and so I have no problem eating the meat from 4 Arrows, because I'm confident it was raised and processed in the most sustainable way possible by people who care about the land they call home and the animals they raise there.
I realize this diary has run long, and I hope I've addressed and debunked the idea that "meat... is unsustainable" to your satisfaction. But bear with me a little bit longer, because there was a second part to the sustainability argument - seafood, and specifically shrimp. (I should note here that our CSA does not offer shrimp, but we do seek out Florida wild-caught shrimp when we buy it.)
When it comes to seafood (which, being a native Floridian, I am blessed to be able to enjoy a wide variety of), my guide is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's excellent Seafood Watch program. If you eat seafood, this web site needs to be in your bookmarks.
Seafood Watch ranks seafood in three categories: "Best Choice," meaning seafood caught in the wild or farmed using practices that have the least possible negative impact on fisheries and the environment; "Good Alternative," meaning seafood caught in the wild or farmed in ways which are acceptable but might be improved; and "Avoid," meaning seafood caught in the wild or farmed in ways which have highly negative impacts on fisheries and the environment.
The diary I linked to at the top of this diary describes shrimp which is definitely on the "Avoid" list - Black Tiger Shrimp, Tiger Prawn, White Shrimp and Ebi imported from Asia and farmed in open systems which are bad both for the quality of the shrimp and the surrounding environment.
Shrimp farmed in the U.S. in closed, recirculating systems or wild caught in Oregon and the Canadian Pacific region are "Best Choices." So where does that leave our Florida shrimp? Seafood Watch declares it a "Good Alternative."
Florida shrimp are harvested by trawlers dragging nets along the bottom. In many parts of the world, this practice is highly destructive to marine environments. But the shrimp beds off both Florida coasts are located in sandy, muddy bottoms which are frequently disturbed by storms and ocean currents, and as a result, trawling does no permanent damage. The shrimp harvested by Florida's shrimp fleets are short-lived but very prolific, so the fishery has had no problem sustaining itself even if the face of aggressive harvesting.
The only major concern about Florida shrimp is bycatch - the trawler nets catch not just shrimp, but everything in their path, including sea turtles, and many fish species whose fisheries are stressed. At one time, this alone put Florida shrimp on the "Avoid" list.
But strides have been made to reduce bycatch in the form of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) and Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs), which are required by law on all shrimp nets. While not eliminating bycatch concerns (hence the "Good Alternative" rather than "Best Choice" rating), Seafood Watch is satisfied that, "Management of the U.S. Gulf and South Atlantic shrimp fisheries has been fairly effective, maintaining stocks, researching habitat effects, and, over the long term, addressing bycatch issues in a progressive and successful manner."
And considering that I personally find shrimp tasty, and that it is one of the healthiest seafoods one can eat, that's good enough for me.
You can find Seafood Watch's very comprehensive and enlightening report on the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast shrimp fishery here. (It's a PDF file.)
I'll stop here, but I do plan a follow-up diary to address health issues surrounding meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products.
My purpose in writing this is not to disparage Vegans or criticize their lifestyle - if a vegetarian lifestyle works for you, go for it. But just because it works for you doesn't mean it's going to work for everyone. Some of us - I would venture to say most of us - will continue to enjoy meat and seafood (not to mention eggs and dairy products).
I would prefer Vegans and Omnivores recognize each other's choices for what they are - personal lifestyle choices - and applaud each other's attempts to find the most sustainable way to pursue those choices. Instead of being at each other's throats, we should be directing our activism at the real culprits: Industrial food production, over-processing of foods (including over-reliance on such ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup) and efforts by huge corporate conglomerates such as Monsanto and Con-Agra to monopolize, patent and control our entire food supply.