Wednesday, December 26, 2007


It may be closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, but I read today that we should not eat turkeys for Christmas, but shellfish instead. There is some truth in this : a mass-produced turkeys is among the most disgusting food I can imagine. Bloated, oozing, watery and fundamentally tasteless, it can only be tradition (and commerce) that keeps this bird on our plates at Christmas. Of course, before the 1950s the tradition was for goose, but this fell out of favour largely because geese are impossible to farm on a very large scale (the only way a goose will grow is by being left to range freely). Turkey became the preferred option, and our appetite for it has caused one of the most criminal outrages against animal welfare one can imagine.

I'm not so sure shellfish are much better though - if anything, tiger prawns are far worse. The Environmental Justice Foundation have made a film which you can watch here, which shows the effects of our collective weakness for a prawn bhuna. The UK imports 78,000 tonnes of trawled and farmed prawns from abroad every year - on top of the 2,500 tonnes we catch off our own shores. Trawling prawns from the seabed isn't great because the nets have such tiny holes - necessary for catching the smallest and juiciest shrimps - that many other sea creatures are caught up as well, and then dumped back into the ocean.

But it is farming prawns that causes the most devastation. Larger prawns - kings, tigers, fantails - will invariably have been farmed in Latin America or the Asian subcontinent. Huge areas of tropical land have been seized (often illegally and/or by force) by national or multinational companies, whereupon coastal forests have been destroyed to make way for new prawn farms. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has reported that 50% of the world's mangroves have been destroyed. In his latest fish book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes:

The mangroves are chopped down and large areas flooded and seeded with juvenile prawns. These are artificially fed until large enough to harvest and sell. After two or three years the water is so polluted with prawn waste - and the toxic chemicals used to neutralise it and prevent fungal diseases - that it becomes too toxic for prawn farming. Even when the water is drained, the remaining soil is so polluted that crops can't be grown for years.


People who try to protest and fight against the invasion of their land are often met with brutality. In 2004, six children and community activists were shot and injured after residents of Curral Velho on the easternmost tip of Brazil confronted employees of the Empresa Joli Aquicultura shrimp farming company about its recent expansion into nearby mangrove forests. The destruction of the mangroves have significant economic and environmental impacts, the most ironic of which is the slow death of other local fishing industries. Lobsters and many varieties of crabs, mussels and oyster live in mangroves for much of their lives - without mangroves, these local economies will go under.

It would be fair to say that virtually all farmed prawns found today on the market are a product of the destruction of coastal ecosystems in the countries of the South and of the displacement of local populations. The message is simple : don't buy them.

North Atlantic deepwater prawns are better, since they have not been trawled, and prawns and langoustines which have been caught in creels (similar to lobster pots) are better still. Langoustines taste better too, though the British have an awful habit of dredging them in breadcrumbs and serving them up as scampi. In their natural state, however, they are magnificent. If you ever see scampi on a Mediterranean country, this is what you'll get. Grilled in garlic or boiled and served with mayonnaise, they are seriously good.

But one must be realistic. The Marine Conservation Society gives all fish a rating for sustainability. Of the six main forms of crustacean, all are overfished, two significantly so. In the mollusc family, only winkles are currently sustainable. You're pretty safe with a bivalve: mussels, cockles, scallops and oysters can all be eaten with a clear conscience. But cephalopods (squids and cuttlefish) are set to run out before too long, unless we change our diets. There are two types of greed at work here: that of us as consumer, and that of the manufacturers who wish to cash in on our gluttony. In a consumer-driven capitalist society, everything will run out sooner or later. The only hope for many fish is virtual extinction: then at least we might stop eating them in such inhuman quantities, and give them a chance to survive.


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