reLAKSation no 980

Feeding back: For the past couple of years, the beginning of August has been marked as Earth Overshoot Day. This is the day that planet Earth’s resources for the year have been deemed to have been used up.  Twenty years ago, the date was October and back in the 1970’s it was January meaning that we could use the planet’s resources for a whole year. Now it is about eight months.  The Independent newspaper produced a graphic last year that indicated that if everyone on the planet lived like people in Luxembourg, then the resources would run out in mid- February, whilst if everyone lived liked people from Ecuador then the resources would last until mid-December. For people living in the UK, the date is mid-May.

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to have visited Ecuador. The country is lovely, as are the people, but the poverty was heart-breaking. Ecuador may have changed in the intervening years, but I am not sure that many of the world’s population would be satisfied living in a similar way to ensure that the world’s resources are sustained. Clearly, the migration of people from south America trying to enter the USA shows that people have aspiration for a better life. I am not convinced that the state of the planet is their first concern.

We hear a lot about how the earth’s resources are being used up and what can be done to halt the decline – I shall be considering the issue of fishmeal in this commentary – but the fundamental problem is not about resources at all  but rather about us – the human race. There are simply too many of us and our numbers continue to grow accompanied by an insatiable demand for resources. Eventually, something will have to give.

Man is no different to other animal populations except in one respect. We have learned how to push our extinction limits further and further apart. Animal populations vary in size as food become more or less abundant. The local environment dictates how big the population can become and numbers fluctuate between minimum and maximum population limits. If for whatever reason, the population manages to push beyond these limits, they risk extinction. Man has developed the ability to grow the population because the environment has changed due to our influence. Hence, we are no longer hunter gatherers, except in the ocean, but we can farm more and more food allowing our numbers to continue growing. Yet, there will become a time when we have pushed these limits as far as they will go, and the population will collapse. It is however unlikely that we will get that far because undoubtedly, the population will, at some point, be compromised by disease, local famine or even war.

We should also remember that our world is not equal. Whilst some peoples are starving and living in abject poverty, others are more fortunate and are well fed and live in comparative luxury. In the western world, people have more choice and are able to eat for reasons other than to provide the basic nutrition for life. We have learnt to enjoy the food we eat and can be highly selective in our choice. This is a big step away from just meeting our basic nutritional requirement.

Some time ago I interviewed the head of the NGO Feedback, an organisation that has a vision for the global food system. They see that food production is the single greatest impact that we have on our environment. They say that the corporate world has developed food beyond the basic nutrition and is high impact and wasteful. Feedback believe that modern practices drive deforestation, drain freshwater reserves and exhaust the soil, as well as accounting for a quarter of the global greenhouse gas production. They want to see change and amongst their campaigns they focus on the use of forage fish and to do this, they use the Scottish salmon industry as an example.

Feedback have published a new report – Off the Menu – that says that feeding wild fish to salmon is an inefficient and environmentally poor way to produce micronutrients for human diets. Perhaps Feedback have not recognised that evolutionary development did not lead to salmon becoming a human food. That is something that has happened by accident. At the same time, Feedback do not seem to appreciate that evolution has led to other fish becoming salmon’s natural food. Salmon consumer other fish in the wild. This is their natural food.

In much the same way, and I speak for myself and not on behalf of the industry, the aim of salmon farming is not to produce micronutrients for human consumption but rather to produce a tasty food for many humans to enjoy. However, this must be achieved in the most cost-effective way because salmon farming is a business and not some self-sufficiency route. Feedback’s campaign effectively attacks the salmon farming industry for its practices, but this negative approach is doomed to fail and this may have something to do with the fact that Feedback don’t recognise that salmon farming is not a stand-alone industry. Salmon farmers do not go fishing for wild forage fish but rather there is a whole separate industry that exists and will continue to exist even if salmon farming did not. Long ago, forage fish were caught to be used as fertiliser, however when terrestrial farming became more intensive, much of the fish was redirected to feed pigs and poultry. More recently, as the modern aquaculture industry developed, the fish have been redirected again for use in fish feeds. Salmon farming in Scotland is just one small user of a massive industry.

Feedback want to see the fish used in salmon diets be redirected for human consumption. They say that consuming a wide variety of small oily, wild caught fish alongside increasing our consumption of farmed mussels (and possibly eating  a much reduced amount of farmed fish) could access the same level of micronutrients as now produced by farming salmon. This is a noble ambition and one which I fully applaud, but it isn’t going to happen by criticising and attacking the salmon farming industry.

In my opinion, if Feedback want to see wild fish go for direct human consumption then instead of trying to turn consumers away from farmed salmon, they would be better served by promoting the consumption of forage type fish to consumers directly and persuade them that this is what they should be eating. However, as much as is this is the right approach, it is one that Feedback won’t take and this is for two reasons. The first is that however good their case, and their cause, the reality is that UK consumers won’t start to eat lots of small oily fish and secondly, attacking the salmon farming is a sure fire way of raising funding.

One example often quoted of a fish that should be eaten more by consumers is Peruvian anchoveta. Whilst millions of tonnes of this fast reproducing fish are caught every year, the Peruvian Government have failed to persuade local people to buy and eat the fish beyond a relatively small amount. Feedback refer to consumption rising from five thousand to one hundred and sixty thousand tonnes yet attempts to grow demand further have failed. Feedback also refer to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s attempt to get the British public to eat more mackerel; and whilst sales increased 14% through the campaign, they were not sustained. His idea of having a mackerel bap and chips instead of fish and chips didn’t really appeal to the public. Consumers are not easily persuaded to change their tastes.

Recent sales statistics show that whilst consumers bought 66,000 tonnes of salmon in the year to July, 17,000 tonnes of mackerel were sold and much of this was smoked mackerel not fresh. However, the point is that mackerel is a very different fish to Peruvian anchoveta and already has a place in the market. This is not the case for other locally caught forage fish such as Blue Whiting. Sales of other small species include pilchards – 1,900 tones, whitebait – 245 tonnes and sprats – 75 tonnes. Clearly, the British taste for small oily fish is extremely limited.

Feedback have created three models to compare the efficiency of micronutrient supply. These models are 1. Business as usual i.e. salmon farms continue to feed their fish with feed made from fishmeal. 2, Use only trimmings from fish processing as a source of meal and oil and 3. As 2 but also promoting the consumption of farmed mussels.

In my view this is a bit of a pointless comparison because, fish processing waste is already being recycled into fishmeal and used in salmon feeds. The fact even more waste could be utilised in this way is down to the logistics, but I am sure that difficulties in accessing waste will be resolved in future and usage will continue to increase. The public should be eating more farmed mussels, regardless of whether they are considered a replacement for farmed salmon or not, but clearly barriers to consumption still must be overcome. Feedback should consider that if consumers are still not eating many mussels then why would they turn to eating anchoveta?

However, the fundamental issue which Feedback fails to address is that if salmon farming should stop using fishmeal from wild caught fish in their feeds, whether the fish will remain in the sea instead and the answer is of course not. The fish will still be caught and will be utilised by some other industry.

Feedback’s calculations of wild fish usage show their failure to understand the supply chain. They say that in 2014, 179,000 tonnes of salmon required 33,000 tonnes of fish oil which they estimate would come from 461,000 tonnes of wild fish. This amount of wild fish would also produce 155,000 tonnes of fishmeal but as the Scottish salmon industry would require only 55,000 tonnes, this means that there would be enough left to farm 400,000 tonnes of prawns. However, the real world does not work like that. In simple terms, manufacturing fish feed is little different to baking a cake. The feed mill buys in the ingredients it needs, which could consist of three or four different fish meals and different oils. If the mill buys in 200 tonnes of fish oil, it does not automatically come with 940 tonnes of fishmeal, just because that is the ratio in wild fish. The mill buys in what oil it needs and what fishmeal it needs.

Fishmeal has many uses and buyers will buy in what they need, whether it be to feed salmon, pet goldfish, pigs, chickens or cats and dogs. As I have pointed out regularly, I can even buy garden products containing fishmeal to spread on my lawn. The fact that processing wild fish into different amounts of meal and oil is totally irrelevant to the salmon equation. If salmon farmers stop buying fishmeal and fish oil, it will simply go to feed pigs or poultry, or prawns or something else. There is still huge demand for fishmeal and fish oil products outside fish farming which is why the fisheries continue to operate.

Feedback calculate that the Scottish salmon industry requires at least 55,000 tonnes of fishmeal every year. A rough estimate would suggest that about one and a quarter million tonnes of fish meal is still fed to pigs and poultry globally; animals that would never naturally eat fish. If fishmeal was not sold for aquaculture, the usage in pig and poultry feeds would simply return to the days before demand for aquaculture feeds began.

In addition, a further nearly three million tonnes of wild caught fish end up in pet cat and dog food. Again, these are animals that would never eat fish. By comparison, salmon eat fish in the wild and compared to farmed salmon, extremely inefficiently. Much of the protein consumed by wild salmon is wasted as energy rather than being used for growth.

Feedback may consider feeding wild fish to salmon rather wasteful, but the end product is still being consumed by humans unlike feeding wild fish to pet animals. Owners always want the best for their pets and are willing to buy whatever they need often without consideration of the cost, either monetary or to the environment. Only their pet matters, yet clearly a three million tonne harvest does come at a cost and unfortunately, NGO’s like Feedback choose not to highlight this. This is for one good reason and that is that pet owners will disregard even the direst warnings because only their pet matters. Instead, it is so much easier to target the salmon farming industry even though it is doing everything possible to reduce its impact locally and afar.

If Feedback want forage fish to be consumed by people, then they should really direct their efforts towards persuading the public to do so rather than continuing this pointless attack on the salmon farming industry.