Something is decidedly fishy about the changing nature of what we eat. No klaxons blared when a major milestone was reached in 2011: for the first time, farmed fish production topped beef production worldwide.
And that was no fluke, because the gap widened last year as fish farming, or aquaculture, reached a record 66 million tons, compared to beef production of 63 million tons. And, according to an Earth Policy Institute report, 2013 might be the first year that people consume more fish raised on farms than wild-caught fish.
These factoids represent a significant moment in food production: when natural limits — such as declining fish stocks and rangeland beef production — are reached.
“As global demand for animal protein grew more than fivefold over the second half of the twentieth century, humans began to press against the productivity constraints of the world’s rangelands and oceans,” says the report by Janet Larsen and J. Matthew Roney.
They go on to report that annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, wild-caught fish jumped from 17 million tons to nearly 90 million tons. “But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat. The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible.”
That’s because much of the world’s grasslands are stocked at or beyond capacity, and most of the world’s prime fisheries are over-fished and declining, or even disappearing.
“Fishing patterns over time reveal that more effort is required to achieve the same size catch as in years past. Boats are using more fuel and traveling to more remote and deeper waters to bring in their haul. Fishers are pulling up smaller fish, and populations of some of the most popular food fish have collapsed.”
There is very little margin to expand the output of beef from rangelands and fish from the seas, so “producing more beef and fish for a growing and increasingly affluent world population has meant relying on feedlots for fattening cattle and on ponds, nets, and pens for growing fish.”
Health and environmental concerns are leading many people in industrial countries to reduce their beef intake. Meanwhile, fish are touted as healthy alternatives—except for the largest types, which have accumulated mercury from environmental pollution.
Enter the ancient art of aquaculture where, you guessed it, China accounts for 62 percent of the world’s farmed fish. But there’s also a downside to fish farming (aside from the taste): aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly from shrimp farming. In the Philippines, some two-thirds of the country’s mangroves – over 100,000 hectares – have been removed for shrimp farming over the last 40 years.
Diets heavy in red meat have been associated with a higher risk for heart disease and colon cancer, among other ailments. Beef production has garnered a negative reputation for having a large carbon footprint and for destroying habitat, notably in the Brazilian Amazon. Beef consumption is declining—now at less than 20 pounds per person annually—and is unlikely to return to the average of 24 pounds per person seen in the 1970s.
Annual fish consumption meanwhile is about 42 pounds per person (up from 25 pounds in the 1970s) and is expected to keep increasing.
Mother Nature has her limits. We’ve crossed a trend-line from peak natural food production that probably cannot be reversed, which is why it is critical to ensure that feedlot beef production and the farmed fish coming to our tables is done efficiently and sustainably.