The Emptying of the Oceans

Animal AgricultureMartin Rowe

On November 1, Alfonso Daniels of the British Broadcasting Corporation, reported on conflicts between Senegalese and Mauritanian fishermen off the coast of West Africa (“‘Fish are vanishing’—Senegal’s devastated coastline”). Senegalese boats had been moving into Mauritanian waters in search of catch, which had led to clashes with Mauritania’s coastguard and the deaths of perhaps dozens of fishermen.

The causes of the conflict are many and multivalent. Years of (sometimes illegal) overfishing from European and East Asian trawlers have led to a collapse in fish stocks. Mor Ndiaye, a Senegalese fisherman, tells Daniels: “The fish just vanished, what can we do? We used to catch enough fish in a day or two. Now we need to go out at sea for weeks to catch the same amount. It’s terrifying, we can only rely on God.”

Of the fish that are caught in Mauritania, half are now turned into powdered meal in factories that dot the coast of Mauritania, as they do in Senegal. These factories, which are owned by Chinese and Russian companies, employ mainly Chinese and Turkish workers. The meal is exported to China, where it is fed to farmed fish and other livestock.

Fish have long made up a staple diet for the coastal communities of West Africa. Indeed, writes Daniels, fish constitute 75 percent of the daily protein intake for many coastal Africans, as well as those in interior, landlocked countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali. With the reduction in opportunities to fish, some fishermen are abandoning their profession and taking to the open seas in search of a better life in Europe. These perilous journeys, often in craft unsuited for long ocean journeys, can be fatal, whether through starvation, exposure, or capsizing. Those who make the trek north through the Sahara run the risk of exploitation or worse from human traffickers. Crossing the Mediterranean is also extremely hazardous.

Mauritanian and Senegalese governments have recently tried to calm tensions between their fishing communities by establishing quotas. However, Daniels notes, there is considerable dissatisfaction with Mauritanian inspectors, who’ve been accused of accepting kickbacks from non–West African countries to ignore illegal overfishing. As Alassane Samba, who used to direct Senegal’s oceanic research institute, tells Daniels: “Mauritania is protecting its waters not for its people, but for foreigners.”

Daniels’ story highlights the many interlinked and moving parts of today’s globalized extractive animal-agricultural complex, which are worth examining in more detail. Most glaringly, perhaps, the plight of the fishermen of West Africa illustrates the powerlessness of local communities when confronted with either governmental inaction toward, or active collusion with, industrial-scale production aligned with powerful national governments.

The BBC story echoes that of an article on April 30, 2017, in the New York Times (“China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink,”), in which Andrew Jacobs reports on the challenges facing regional fishing centers on a planet where 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or close to collapse. Communities from the Bering Sea to eastern China and beyond now catch smaller, fewer, and less desirable marine life, including the young of species whose exploitation would mean the end of future “harvests.” According to Jacobs, most of the fish that the Senegalese do haul in “is sent abroad, with a lot ending up as fishmeal fodder for chickens and pigs in the United States and Europe.”

The People’s Republic of China offers payments, continues Jacobs, to the country’s enormous fishing fleets to build and maintain its boats, subsidizes fishing communities. It also turns a blind eye to illegal activity. In the case of the Spratly Islands (the set of reefs, islets, and atolls that China is developing in the South China Sea), the PRC’s government is encouraging fishing fleets to colonize the waters to consolidate and extend China’s geopolitical dominance of the region.

It may be easy to blame the PRC for its failure to regulate overfishing and stop poaching, or criticize its use of private companies to extend its political reach. Yet China is merely the most recent manifestation of a public–private accommodation that reaches back to the English and Spanish pirates in the Caribbean, the Dutch and British East India companies, King Leopold II of Belgium’s private fiefdom of the Congo Free State, and on to the proxy Soviet and Western conflicts in Africa and South-East Asia during and after the struggles for independence.

On the high seas of today, whether sailing under flags of convenience or under their own insignia, fleets from East Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States remove vast amounts of fish from the world’s waters every year in an attempt both to meet demand and extend hegemony. As Liu Xinzhong, deputy general director of the bureau of fisheries in Beijing, says Jacobs’ Times article, China is merely following that immutable directive: “‘People come to me and ask, “If China doesn’t fish, where would Americans get their fish to eat?”’”

The complexity of calling out China is further exacerbated by the assiduousness with which the Chinese government has courted African leaders, promising that China will not interfere in these nations’ internal politics, no matter how repressive or kleptocratic. In September 2018, President Xi Jingping pledged another $60 billion (following $60 billion in 2015) for projects throughout Africa, emphasizing that such aid had to benefit Africans, be environmentally responsible, protect wildlife, and combat desertification.

However, as the case of Senegal and Mauritania illustrates, African workers aren’t necessarily benefiting from employment at the fishmeal factories, even as their jobs on the open waters no longer are tenable. Moreover, the practices of all of the boats—whether local vessels or the huge trawlers off the coast of West Africa—are far from environmentally responsible or protecting wildlife. The Chinese workers who staff the fishmeal factories constitute some of the one million Chinese who’ve moved to Africa in recent years. (The numbers of Chinese may now be declining as the economies of some African countries cool.)

The dynamic between China and Africa exemplifies the continued colonial and neocolonial relationship that Western and now East Asian countries have with Africa. Rich in natural resources, weak in governance, and confined by a neoliberal Washington Consensus that encourages free trade, foreign direct investment, privatization, deregulation, and the selling off of natural assets rather than retaining and adding value to them, African governments continue to cede their finite natural resources to industrialized countries that may be deficient in those natural resources, have lots of capital, and need to satisfy a population hungry for commercial products and more consumer options.

As with the colonial powers in “the Scramble for Africa” in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China is looking to feed its expanding middle class and rapid industrialization by exploiting Africa and Africans, and turning a blind eye to poor or corrupt governance and the political and social destabilization that may occur as a result. Meanwhile, as the colonial forces of yesteryear built railways, mines, and capital cities, the Chinese pledge and build much-needed airports, dredge ports, construct railroads, and provide other infrastructure.

Of course, another way of looking at China’s presence in Africa is that Western aid has failed and only created corruption and dependency. It is possible, although not inevitable, that these infrastructure projects, including the fishmeal factories, will spur enough economic growth around them for the African countries to pay back the loans given to them by China. However, the risk is that the burden on the local ecosystems will do the reverse. The irony, as the plight of the Senegalese fishermen illustrates, is that instead of development, the inequitable partnership actually poses a threat—both to the Africans’ native countries and beyond their borders.

No longer able to fish, young men may turn to other ways to make a living. In the Philippines, according to Jacobs’ Times story, former fishermen are burning protected tropical rainforest to plant rice fields. The destruction of roots that keep the earth in place, however, causes landslides, leading to loss of topsoil and ultimately barren land. Sometimes that displacement turns violent. In Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate, social scientists from Adelphi, a German think-tank, identified climate change as a “threat multiplier” for non-state armed groups, who might serve as a source of employment and grievance-redress, step in to control water or other vital services, and further destabilize countries. The Adelphi group cite the presence of Boko Haram around Lake Chad and the Janjaweed in Darfur as examples of this.

As people take to the seas (or cross the desert) in search of a better life in Europe, they join the river of migrants flowing from rural areas who can no longer practice their way of life because of climate change, the consolidation and industrialization of farming, and the destruction of habitat or land grabs. Fleeing to urban areas, rural migrants place further stress on already-scarce housing stock, poor sewage treatment, and high unemployment rates. These, in turn, threaten further destabilization and unrest, which only increase pressures to emigrate.

Population decline in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere, combined with excess labor pools in Africa and other parts of the developing world would indicate that well-controlled immigration might solve both problems. However, the recent rise of ethno-nationalist leaders in the United States and parts of Europe, stirred by cultural and racial fears of mass immigration and loss of regional identity, suggest that economic realities and confrontations on the border may only reinforce illiberal and autocratic tendencies, exacerbate tensions between nation states, and lead to further instability.

Behind these geopolitical human realities is a mindset that views animal life as an inexhaustible commodity to be extracted, industrialized, and globalized—whether that life consists of the fish ground into meal, or the livestock to whom that meal is fed, in China, Europe, or the United States. Unlike ungulates or monogastrics, fish typically are measured by the ton rather than individually, and so the number of pelagic fish caught may, literally, be countless—although one effort a decade ago calculated the total at 2.74 trillion. This number doesn’t include non-target animals netted (estimated at about 38 million tonnes per year), a figure that, according to the WWF, includes 300,000 cetaceans, 250,000 turtles, and 300,000 seabirds.

The assumption that nature’s marine bounty is infinite runs counter to emerging consensus about the essential role that marine ecosystems play in regulating the planet’s climate. The ocean contains fifty times and twenty times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and soil respectively, and phytoplankton (which are responsible for more than half of all photosynthesis on Earth) remove half the carbon dioxide released via the burning of fossil fuels. Not only does a hotter climate threaten the photosynthetic capabilities of phytoplankton, but rising surface sea temperatures have reduced the number of phytoplankton by 40 percent since 1950. Since phytoplankton are the first link in a food chain that reaches all the way up to the great whales, and spreads throughout the marine food chain, their disappearance threatens fish stocks of all kinds everywhere on the planet.

The core madness of Daniels’ story for the BBC lies in the fact that the fishmeal produced doesn’t even go to feed humans directly, but to fatten farmed fish or livestock. Farmed carnivorous now fish eat fewer fish by consuming meal filled with corn and soy. Some evidence suggests that a supplemented soy-corn meal would perform almost as well (there would be less fat), and have a more balanced “fish-in, fish-out” (FIFO) ratio than current fishmeal. However, as Daniels’ story shows, animal agribusiness and aquaculture is still using wild-caught fish, which does nothing to help West African coastal communities feed themselves. It should be added that continuing to use wild-caught fish also means exposing consumers to mercury, lead, plastics, and other poisons concentrated in their flesh.

One proposed solution is providing insect meal as feed for farm-raised fish such as trout and salmon. A number of insect species, such as the black soldier fly, have been tried, although, like the soy-corn combination, they don’t have enough oily fats. Another option, of course, might be encouraging people to consume insects themselves. A 2013 report from the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, noted that insects “form part of the traditional diet of at least 2 billion people,” and that of the 1,900 different species that had been used for food, most were beetles, followed by caterpillars, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets, among several other orders.

Although, insects (like all animals) contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and require feed in order to grow, their protein and calorie conversion ratios are much superior to ruminants, monogastrics, and fish. (For instance, the report notes, not only do crickets produce 1kg of meat for only 1.7kg of feed, but much more of the animal (80 percent) is available for direct consumption than chicken and pigs (55 percent) or cattle (40 percent). Mealworms have comparable amounts of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids as fish, and, says the report, “the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat.” The report further notes that raising such animals at an industrial scale would not leave a large environmental footprint, and would “offer important livelihood opportunities for people in both developing and developed countries.”

Yet another option remains to be realized, and that is the development of cellular meat from fish. Companies such as Finless Foods and BlueNalu, as well as the incubator New Harvest, are looking at the challenges and opportunities presented by growing seafood from fish cell and tissue cultures. Indeed, argue the authors of the article “Cell-Based Fish: A Novel Approach to Seafood Production and an Opportunity for Cellular Agriculture,” aquaculture’s liquid environment and temperate conditions may be the most ideal in which to culture fish-flesh cells—perhaps more so than those of mammals or birds.

Beyond these solutions are indigenous grains and legumes—such as fonio (which is rich in protein), cowpea, egusi, locust bean, moringa, and many others—that offer a continuous means of sustenance. The challenge is persuading a rapidly urbanizing global population that a “Western” conception of “modernity” and “wealth” (which favors the consumption of animal foods, including bushmeat) should not mean the abandonment of the indigenously grown plant-based food that once enabled communities to eat locally and healthfully. These plants and ideas will need to be revived and/or revalorized, should the animals that once provided a source of protein no longer survive on land or in the ocean.

“The fish just vanished,” Mor Ndiaye, the Senegalese fisherman, told Alfonso Daniels of the BBC. “It’s terrifying, we can only rely on God.” One might excuse Mr. Ndiaye’s lament as o overly colorful—that the fishmeal factories suggest that plenty of fish are being caught, and that the situation is remediable not through divine intervention but through potentially straightening but hardly terrifying public policy (establishing marine sanctuaries to retain fish stocks, rigorously enforcing quotas, finding supplementary sources of protein, providing alternative sources of labor, reducing the need for fish meal in the first place). Indeed, the New York Times report observes that the Chinese government is looking to register all its fishing boats to monitor illegal fishing more effectively. As Liu Xinzhong of the fisheries bureau says, “The era of fishing any way you want, wherever you want, has passed. We now need to fish by the rules.”

However, it could be that Mor Ndiaye is sending a signal that officials and officialese ignore at their peril: that ecosystems will not slowly decline but collapse once a tipping point has been reached, as whole species “vanish”—wiped out in a blink of an eye by the severance of the trophic cascade; or a minuscule, but definitive increase in sea temperature that changes breeding patterns; or the slightest shifting of an ocean current that alters spawning grounds and food sources. At that point, given the climatic changes already baked in, the acts of God that may be visited upon us, and the subsequent catastrophes that neither local, regional, national, nor global governance will be able to handle, the future may indeed offer nothing but terror.

In such circumstances, then, it’s clear that those of us who can afford to live without animal products and thrive should do so. As this story so clearly illustrates, to continue consuming fish because it somehow is less obviously harmful to animal welfare, or produces fewer direct GHG emissions, or has a more efficient protein-conversion rate than beef, means ignoring the continuing inequities and colonialism of our diet, and maintains the exploitation of those whose material wellbeing is directly affected by our thoughtless consumption. The story shows how inextricably animal agriculture of all kinds is tied into neoliberal economic model that threatens not merely planetary survival but also is actively destabilizing societies and threatens democracies and the civilizational order.

The story also illustrates that not all “vegan” options are the same: that the opportunities for Mor Ndiaye to eat sustainably and healthfully, earn a living, and look forward to a better future are more constrained than yours or mine. For him and millions of others like him throughout the developing world, farming and eating insects may be essential additional sources of protein, as is a rediscovery of an indigenous and resilient plant-based food culture and potentially the widespread availability of cellular-based fish protein produced on site and made affordable to local communities. The sad truth is that until we in the developed world model the same downscaled protein consumption that we now expect from the developing world, then it is inequitable and unrealistic to expect Mr. Ndiaye and millions of others not to follow us.

What about Plants? . . . and Other Conundrums

Origins IconMartin Rowe

It’s a truth universally acknowledged among vegans that those who meet us and discover our predilection (if we haven’t told them already), will, after they’ve given us a quick eye examination to make sure we’re ethically consistent (non-leather shoes, belt, purse, etc.), raise the issue of the sentience of plants.

This is what I call a “non-question question.” The interrogator is usually not a fruitarian, let alone a breatharian and has no interest in the welfare of plants. After all, given that the animals omnivores eat are herbivores, a vegan likely consumes fewer plants than an omnivore, who consumes the corn, soy, and (if they’re lucky) the grass the animal does, as well as the vegetables that vegans eat. It may be true that we’ll discover that plants possess the ability to feel pain, to express needs and wants, and have biographies in the way that most animals do. But until then, I’ll chalk this observation to someone who’s raising an abstruse or difficult case to shift attention from our complicity in perfectly observable, measurable, and resolvable animal exploitation. Any idea can be reduced to an absurdity and no social movement should have to meet a standard of complete consistency, or politely wait until all other “more important” oppressions have been solved, before it should be taken seriously.

Yet Vegan America shouldn’t gloss over complexities or paradoxes, since they aren’t only academic. Harvesting methods that vegans benefit from accidentally kill other (smaller) animals; feral invasive species hunt native ones; outdoor cats stalk and decimate songbird populations; and our cats and dogs eat meat. We use insects (such as bees) as pollinators, and we control pests (aphids, mosquitoes, ants, rats, mice, etc.) for cosmetic and disease-carrying reasons. Animals are used in religious practices (Santeria), among native peoples (hunting as a traditional practice), or as a cultural identity (the Amish)—and these pose constitutional challenges for upholding minority rights and the individual conscience. The Vegan America Project should deal with these issues creatively, sensitively, and honestly.

A further definitional wrinkle regarding “veganism” is found in cellular agriculture (taking an animal’s cell tissue and “growing” meat and dairy through a fermentation-like process). Some would argue that veganism simply requires that no sentient being suffers or is killed; others would say that veganism stipulates that no animal or animal product is utilized in any way—that eating “grown” meat, for instance, concedes a notion of flesh-eating as normative and/or ineradicable. However, if cell-lines can be replicated in perpetuity without requiring the confinement, exploitation, suffering, or killing of any animal, then why would vegans object to it—beyond squeamishness or unfounded fears over “Frankenfood”? Or, for that matter, where would the ethical dilemma lie in wearing leather or skins made from cellular muscle, tissue, and hide?

Cellular agriculture, meats that use non-animal protein, and non-animal dairy products (made from almond, soy, hemp, coconut, rice, etc.) present game-changing opportunities to move toward a Vegan America, since it’s the food industry that exploits by far the greatest number of animals. Such developments might also obviate dietary problems associated with food allergies, vitamin deficiencies, or the health consequences of a vegan diet too reliant on carbohydrates or gluten. (It’s my hunch that a genuinely varied, plant-based diet that isn’t saturated with chemicals, pesticides, insecticides, GMOs, and antibiotics would go a long way to alleviating these allergies—although it’s questionable whether any of these intrinsically belong to a vegan analysis.)

Cellular agriculture is currently at the beginning of its pathway from development to marketplace, but already it promises meat that is significantly lower in energy consumption, GHG emissions, and the use of water. It’s free of fecal matter, antibiotics, and growth hormones. It’s much less likely to be contaminated with e-coli, campylobacter, salmonella, and listeria; and, obviously, it avoids the messy cruelty of raising animals in intensive confinement and slaughtering them—as well as the dirty and incredibly unpleasant business of killing them. Complaints that cellular agriculture is somehow “unnatural” in such circumstances would seem to me perverse.

Cellular agriculture offers a case study in why, in my judgment, the Vegan America Project should avoid setting up a distinction between “pure” and “natural” on one side, and “impure” and “unnatural” on the other. It’s not possible to return planet Earth in the Anthropocene to some tatus quo ante state of pristine ecological balance. Nor will universal veganism usher in a Golden Age or eschatological Holy Mountain where the lion will lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, as Isaiah prophesies. Predation and animal suffering will still occur; human–animal conflicts will be unavoidable; climate change will allow some species to survive and thrive and others to become extinct, even without human interference; zoonotic diseases won’t end—they may even increase in range and/or intensity.

I’m also aware of Cary Wolfe’s concern (in Before the Law) that veganism becomes a kind of vitalistic notion that something’s closeness to nature is intrinsically and/or essentially good—morally, physically, spiritually, politically. There’s a kind of absoluteness, even a kind of theological fascism, to the conceit that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things” that offers Truth or absoluteness to those who can grasp or perceive it. Veganism cannot simply be a moment of revelation that leaves you basking in the light of an apperception of the ultimate quidditas of existence.

To that extent, therefore, veganism as I conceive it is not an endpoint but a journey, an orientation, a sensibility, a critical apparatus. With full awareness of the Watsons’ parsimonious definition, for me it draws into its orbit notions of nonviolence and right livelihood as found in the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures; it evokes Christian notions of mercy and planetary stewardship and the Jewish mandate of tikkum olam (“to heal the world”). From utilitarianism, it attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; from ethic-of-care feminism, veganism suggests we place ourselves in another being’s situation and ask, with Simone Weil, “What are you going through?” From rights-based and biocentric orientations, veganism calls on us to respect the bodily integrity of individual creatures and ecosystems, in which humans are but one species among millions of others, and wholly dependent on, and interdependent with, the natural world.

In not pursuing the “pure” and “natural,” I aim to avoid falling down the rabbit hole of what constitutes a “pure” or “natural” diet. It’s my preliminary judgment that too many factors (genetic, environmental, lifestyle, income level, education, access to health care, sugar and fat intake, and food insecurity, among others) influence individual health for us to claim that every American on a vegan diet will live healthy and productive lives until they’re 120. Those suffering from digestive diseases or allergies that necessitate a diet low in carbohydrates, or without sugar, soy, salt, gluten, or orthorexia remain outside the ambit as well, since too many physical and psychological factors affect these conditions to pinpoint an exact cause.

Studies show that a vegan diet would as a general rule foster lower levels of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and mitigate problems associated with obesity. Clearly, these would, in turn reduce healthcare costs and allow more citizens to work, play, or live with a great quality of life: this is the thinking behind the health savings detailed in the Oxford-Martin and PMAS 2016 report. And, clearly, vegans need to be careful regarding deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fatty acids, and so forth. However, as the links suggest, these deficiencies are also found among omnivores. Because of these many variables with individual health, it is, therefore, on public health policy that the Vegan America Project will concentrate.

I’ve raised a number of objections to this project. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll offer a few more.