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Food for thought or thought for food

Food for thought or thought for food

By Wayne Dredge (2014 Scholar)

Since beginning my Nuffield Scholarship at the start of March I have toured primary production businesses as diverse as apple orchards in South Africa’s Elgin Valley, a dairy cattle farm in Kenya that still milks by hand, the factory that supplies lettuce to every McDonalds in Russia, the US corn belt where GMO is accepted and an East African cattle ranch where lions and cattle co-existed in relative harmony to name just a few.

I’ve met with the head of Argentina’s Fisheries Observer Program, a Chilean ecologist and international leader in marine science research, countless fisherman, policy makers and lobbyists from both sides of the political divide throughout Latin America, the US and Canada. I’ve also met seafood retailers and wholesalers, contacted environmental Non Government Organisations (eNGO’s) for opinions that currently concern world fisheries, as well as spending countless hours searching websites ranging from Greenpeace to foreign seafood industry associations.

Through the labyrinth of organisations, individuals, political ideologies and opposing practices, and despite hearing the “S” word spoken literally thousands of times, I am no closer to discovering to what sustainability means in much of the public discourse that floods our media today. Even that wealth of accumulated human intellect which we all now rely so heavily upon, ‘Wikipedia’, offers no less than 20 possible interpretations in the first 11 paragraphs.

Before considering why the word has become difficult to define, one point must be made and that is every single organism on the planet exploits something else for its own survival. Even the cleanest, greenest, organically grown tofu has exploited micronutrients from the soil it was grown in to ensure it survived. Recognising the fact that every life on earth is exploitive is essential if we are to have an intelligent conversation about our own levels of resource exploitation and ensuring that we keep those levels renewable.

With so many of the worlds greatest minds working on ways to improve our interaction with nature and the resources we exploit to ensure our survival why has the definition of “sustainability” become so hard to define? Unfortunately, rarely does the world see a political leader who regards sustainability beyond the next electoral cycle. This guides legislation in ideological or economic directions that are often contrary to what may be the best resource management practices available.

To most of us the concept is extremely simple and reflects back to the 1987 UN Brundtland Commission which described sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This particular definition is of paramount importance to all those in primary production industries.

Wild capture fisheries are arguably more prone to overexploitation than other food-based resources largely because unlike agriculture, which effectively removes the natural environment, capture fisheries extract directly from the natural environment. The good news is that when managed responsibly and scientifically the ocean has proved to be an effective renewable food source.

In meeting with key management players in Argentina and Chile, it was brought to my attention that Patagonian toothfish stocks in South America are facing serious recruitment problems. Through extensive research they have now identified where this long lived species of fish breed and where juveniles are carried to by ocean currents.

After breeding on the very southern tip of the continent the spawn is carried north into the Atlantic, then circulates around to come to rest on the Argentinian coast as far north as Uruguay. The juvenile fish hatch and then as sexually immature stock they spend four-to-five years moving south back to the southern tip of the continent to begin the process again.

Presently the Argentinian trawl industry, of which a large portion is largely unregulated, have been unknowingly catching this recruitment stock as it moves south before reaching sexual maturity. In effect they have been having a generational impact on stock recruitment. The result of these actions has seen a reduction in catches of mature fish by Chilean longline vessels in sub Antarctic waters and the Chilean Peruvian trench.

According to the 1987 Brundtland definition action should be taken to protect this recruiting stock to ensure renewable exploitation levels are not surpassed. Unfortunately Argentina implementing restrictions on its commercial fleet comes with economic and political implications that wouldn’t ensure the sustainability of some fishing businesses and political careers. Unfortunately the fish suffer as a result and countries where fisheries are managed responsibly unfairly wear the negative image of these bad practices.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the Canadian government has been partaking in a buyback of commercial fishing licenses and reallocating them to native America as part of a land restitution process. Whilst a worthy and noble concept the implementation has become flawed because the indigenous populations operate largely outside of the stringent conditions imposed upon the rest of the fisheries. In effect an ideological approach to land restitution is resulting in fishing efforts being removed from sectors where it is scientifically managed to areas where regulations are ignored and compliance non-existence.

Australian fisheries are ranked second in the world after Germany with regards to best scientific practices yet often find themselves under attack from eNGO’s for perceived ill practices. Often such ideological attacks are through social media which has the ability to garner huge popular support for a cause without being accountable for the claims made.

The greatest example of this in recent Australian history was the case of the Dutch “Super Trawler” that was being bought into Australia under contract by an Australian company to fish what was a scientifically assessed stock at extremely sustainable levels. Both mainstream and social media gave so much negative coverage to the issue (which was largely funded by foreign money) that the political capital being expended by the then government and then opposition to support the project proved too great. The absurdity of banning a scientific approach to resource management due to an emotive and ill informed public response was only surpassed by more than one of the nation’s political leaders referring to the vessel being a “large vacuum cleaner that would suck all the fish from the ocean”.

In this scenario the Australian commercial fishing industry was a victim, but global fish stocks were a greater one. Humans ate no less seafood as a result of the temporary ban; it was simply sourced from other nations who are not taking such a responsible science based approach to their fisheries.

Australia presently has around 30 percent of the entire worlds Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) yet still environment groups are seeking to protect more. In a country that is a world leader in fisheries conservation practices the question must be asked, “What exactly are we protecting them from?” Despite MPA’s being an important part of management policy to protect localised vulnerable ecosystems, closing off large areas to renewable levels of exploitation for all time may prove to be counterproductive to what we as a species need to achieve.

I have heard it said that Australia’s approach to MPA implementation provides a good example to developing countries on how to manage their resources. The truth is that most developing nations do not have the luxury of locking away large swathes of natural resources; their primary objective is in developing their economies in order to increase living standards for their citizens. Food production is of paramount importance in this. A greater example we as a nation could provide is a sound model for scientific management and how work from within an industry has ensured the long term viability of our stocks.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change recently presented a report that showed the extent to which our oceans are changing. Trends show that tropical fish species are moving into more temperate latitudes at rates of up to 10km per decade while some algae species are moving much faster at up to 400km per decade. They believe this will have positive effects on some fish stocks while having negative impacts on others. Combine this with the World Health Organisations prediction that by 2050 we can expect an additional 2.5 billion people on the planet and the challenges in finding renewable exploitation levels will become an ever changing and more difficult target that we can only hope to find through continued research and scientific analysis.

Ray Hilborn, a Professor at the University of Washington and a world leader in marine ecology and fisheries science put an interesting scenario to me. “To replace the protein produced by marine capture fisheries with conventional grazing the worlds rain forest would have to be cut down 22 times over to provide enough land mass. Alternatively the world could sustainably harvest 1,000,000 tons of whale meat as a viable protein source. To achieve the same outcome through conventional livestock cattle grazing, at a conversion rate of 600kg of consumable protein per square kilometre, you would have to clear every last remaining piece of rainforest on the planet. Try telling people that they have to eat whales to save the rain forests”.

While this scenario is never likely to occur it is a good demonstration of the topics that we need to discuss and open a sensible dialogue about. It also demonstrates how a scientific approach to sustainable resource management can be derailed by ideological objectives.

Allowing the ideological or economic needs of an elite few amongst the current 7.2 billion people on this planet to direct policy regarding food production may very well inhibit the ability of the next 2.5 billion people we are expecting to meet their most fundamental of needs; the need to access food. It is for this reason that as food producers we need to be very careful about using the word ‘sustainability’ and be aware that it will be an ever changing goal and be ever conscious of the self interested motives of those who wish to engage in debates about it outside the scientific realm.

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