Monday, June 23, 2014

Globalization and Its Consequences

There is a fascinating article in the NYT about a subject that may not sound very interesting – fish. But it shows the strange effects of our bizarre globalized economy, and how believing our food simply comes from the supermarket rather than nature is causing a disconnect with our own environment: ”Globalization, that unseen force that supposedly eliminates inefficiencies through the magic of trade, has radically disconnected us from our seafood supply...We can have no more intimate relationship with our environment than to eat from it. During the last century that intimacy has been lost... It is our obligation to reclaim this intimacy..”

As I’ve noted before, fish were the last food we were hunters-and-gathers of; they were the last wild animals raised in their natural environment, eating their natural, wild diet, that most people could regularly partake of. Not any more. Now we’ve domesticated those too in order to feed the masses. In his book Pandora’s Seed, Spencer Wells journeys to a fish farm to relate current events to the food shortages that led to the domestication of grains and animals that occurred 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and spread from there. Of course, this was partly in response to the killing off of the megafauna centuries earlier, which is increasingly seen as caused by human overharvesting leding to a collapse in population that was exacerbated by climate change. Now, over ten millenia later, we're doing the same thing to fish.

But the thing is, once we become dependent on artificial sources rather than natural ones, a few things tend to happen with disturbing regularity. One is that these resources, rather than be available to all, are only enjoyed by the richest members of society. Fish used to feed the poor, now it feeds the rich. Second, the quality of the resource tends to go down. A lot of farmed salmon are fed on GMO corn, which leads to salmon which is much less nutritious (and is now often full of antibiotics). Both the animals and the people eating them get a lot sicker. And finally, since no artificial system can be as integrated or efficient as a natural one, we must work harder and devote much more resources to keep the resource available, or else lose the resource forever. This is the ratchet effect and the Vicious Circle Principle. I've pointed out before, with the demise of Sweet Water organics here in Milwaukee, the dangers of relying on complex technological systems for your food. One of the owners of SWO pointed out that fish flown in from China can be bought in the store for less than fish raised sustainably literally in our own neighborhood. What sense does that make?

So here are the results of domestication and overexploitation:
In 1982 a Chinese aquaculture scientist named Fusui Zhang journeyed to Martha’s Vineyard in search of scallops. The New England bay scallop had recently been domesticated, and Dr. Zhang thought the Vineyard-grown shellfish might do well in China. After a visit to Lagoon Pond in Tisbury, he boxed up 120 scallops and spirited them away to his lab in Qingdao. During the journey 94 died. But 26 thrived. Thanks to them, today China now grows millions of dollars of New England bay scallops, a significant portion of which are exported back to the United States. As go scallops, so goes the nation. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, even though the United States controls more ocean than any other country, 86 percent of the seafood we consume is imported. But it’s much fishier than that: While a majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of what Americans catch is sold to foreigners. 
The seafood industry, it turns out, is a great example of the swaps, delete-and-replace maneuvers and other mechanisms that define so much of the outsourced American economy; you can find similar, seemingly inefficient phenomena in everything from textiles to technology.
So, we sell the stuff we catch overseas, and then import our stuff from China. Of course I’m sure economists will beat us over the head with Ricardian Equivalence to explain how this shipping of seafood thousands of miles across the globe every day is economically “efficient,” and that our silly little common sense it totally wrong. After all, economics is 'science!' But does anyone think this energy efficient? How much fossil fuels are used in this system?
Once upon a time, most American Atlantic estuaries (including the estuary we now call the New York Bight) had vast reefs of wild oysters. Many of these we destroyed by the 1800s through overharvesting. But because oysters are so easy to cultivate (they live off wild microalgae that they filter from the water), a primitive form of oyster aquaculture arose up and down our Atlantic coast. Until the 1920s the United States produced two billion pounds of oysters a year. The power of the oyster industry, however, was no match for the urban sewage and industrial dumps of various chemical stews that pummeled the coast at midcentury. Atlantic oyster culture fell to just 1 percent of its historical capacity by 1970.
Just as the half-shell appetizer was fading into obscurity, the shrimp cocktail rose to replace it, thanks to a Japanese scientist named Motosaku Fujinaga and the kuruma prawn. Kurumas were favored in a preparation known as “dancing shrimp,” a dish that involved the consumption of a wiggling wild shrimp dipped in sake. Dr. Fujinaga figured out how to domesticate this pricey animal. His graduate students then fanned out across Asia and tamed other varieties of shrimp. Today shrimp, mostly farmed in Asia, is the most consumed seafood in the United States.
Destroy a local industry and ecosystem, then just import the problem away. ‘Problem solved!’ say economists and cornucopians. This complete disconnect from natural ecosystems and dependence upon the Market is the sleight-of-hand they use to convince us that everything is just getting better and better. Don’t you love your shrimp?
Most seafood eaters know the sad story of the Atlantic cod. The ill effects of the postwar buildup of industrialized American fishing are epitomized by that fish’s overexploitation. Gorton’s fish sticks and McDonald’s Filets-o-Fish all once rode on the backs of billions of cod. The codfish populations of North America plummeted and have yet to return. 
Beginning in the 1990s two new white fish started coming to us from Asia: tilapia, which grows incredibly fast, and the Vietnamese Pangasius catfish, which grows even faster (and can breathe air if its ponds grow too crowded). These two are now America’s fourth- and sixth-most-consumed seafoods, respectively...Alongside them, a fishery arose for an indigenous wild American Pacific fish called the Alaskan, or walleye, pollock. In just a few decades, pollock harvests went from negligible to billions of pounds a year. Pollock is now the fish in McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish...In fact, there is so much pollock that we can’t seem to use it all: Every year more than 600 million pounds is frozen into giant blocks and sent to the churning fish processing plants of Asia, Germany and the Netherlands.
And even native species like salmon, which sustained well-developed, sedentary fish-forger cultures in the Pacific Northwest for millennia, is now subject to the manic logic of globalism:
...most wild Atlantic salmon populations have been fished to commercial extinction, and today a majority … comes from selectively bred farmed salmon, with Chile our largest supplier. This is curious, given that salmon are not native to the Southern Hemisphere. But after Norwegian aquaculture companies took them there in the ’80s, they became so numerous as to be considered an invasive species. 
The prevalence of imported farmed salmon … is doubly curious because the United States possesses all the wild salmon it could possibly need. Five species of Pacific salmon return to Alaskan rivers every year, generating several hundred million pounds of fish flesh every year. Where does it all go? 
...Increasingly to Asia. Alaska, by far our biggest fish-producing state, exports around three-quarters of its salmon. To make things triply strange, a portion of that salmon, after heading across the Pacific, returns to us: Because foreign labor is so cheap, many Alaskan salmon are caught in American waters, frozen, defrosted in Asia, filleted and boned, refrozen and sent back to us. Pollock also make this Asian round trip, as do squid — and who knows what else?
The writer of the article makes the connection between globalism and our total disconnect from our own native ecosystems:
I’d argue that with so much farmed salmon coming into the country, we turn a blind eye to projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which would process 10 billion tons of ore from a site next to the spawning grounds of the largest wild sockeye salmon run on earth...I’d maintain that farmed shrimp inure us to the fact that the principal rearing ground of Gulf shrimp, the Mississippi River Delta, is slipping into the sea at a rate of a football field an hour. I’d venture that if we didn’t import so much farmed seafood we might develop a viable, sustainable aquaculture sector of our own.
Why Are We Importing Our Own Fish? (New York Times)

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