At the present time, there are over 5.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the global death toll has surpassed nearly 350,000 people. What we are experiencing the world over is the kind of disruption that none of us would have even considered possible, and living in the grips of this pandemic has given us a globally connected experience unlike any we have had in our lifetime. Our vulnerability to global disruption has been exposed and, while it goes without saying that we are all looking forward to a return to normalcy, it is also important to recognize that we have an opportunity to examine and reconsider some of our behaviours that have impacted our world and played a part in leading us to our current predicament.
The Need for Deeper Regional, National, and Global Connection
The expansion of human activity across the planet continues to drive our species deeper and deeper into our natural ecosystems. It is estimated that 80% of forest loss is due to conversion to agriculture. From a Western perspective, it is easy to critique the people who are pushing into forests and other wild landscapes to produce food and commodity goods, but it is important to note that they are seeking out arable soil to farm in order to feed their families and earn income. Some farms encroach on wildlife habitat as a way to improve livelihood and in many communities the net for nourishment is cast widely simply out of pure necessity and market demand.
Most of this activity is driven by the fact that we live in a world full of social and economic inequity. It may not be clear to those of us who are privileged enough to live in spacious homes and have access to fresh, healthy food, but reconciling equity gaps needs to be an increasing part of our understanding as well as being adapted into any strategies designed to build a sustainable food system.
Extensive black tiger shrimp farm - Indonesia (Photo: Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative)
There are tremendous opportunities to help cultivate equity around the world, including choosing to source seafood that promotes social sustainability in the countries in which it is produced. The COVID-19 crisis is likely to cause knee-jerk reactions that reflect a societal fear of consuming seafood from overseas. However, this kind of response will only deepen the social and gender inequities already pervasive in the seafood sector and lead to greater economic turbulence. While supporting local producers is incredibly important, isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, including relying on only local food sources, will not foster global equity and connection. In short, it is time for us to start thinking at the “species level” and let go of the need to alienate country, race, or culture.
The Power of the Culinary Community
The solution for global sustainability lies in every community everywhere on this planet.
Building resilience in each one is fundamental to achieving widespread human and ecological well-being. Chefs are well poised to help in many ways as they already play important roles within their communities, including the shaping of the local culture and food landscape. However, their influence has been mostly limited to the local or national level, at best. While their influence on a global scale has yet to be fully realized, there is no question that they could use their plates and platforms to share the stories of producer families along with their struggles and successes.
Efforts to make seafood sustainable have been driven for far too long by the interests of the largest buyers that believe their collective buying power alone can create the required change in the industry. And while there is no question they can make a difference, the truth is that sustainability does not exist in a singular global solution but rather in local and regional solutions that redistribute value and benefits in unique ways throughout the entire supply chain. True value lies in building connections through sharing people’s stories, and restaurants and food retailers now have an unprecedented opportunity to engage in more meaningful ways within their local communities and beyond.
The Problem With Locavorism in this Globalized Food Industry
One might ask, “how on earth is it possible to be sustainable when purchasing food produced halfway around the world?” The answer lies in the fact that it has less to do with the distance that the product travels and more to do with the way in which it travels. Early in the sustainability debate, there was the mantra “think global, act local” and while this is generally still good advice, it perpetuates the misunderstanding that sourcing locally is the only sustainable option. A recent paper in Science suggests that only 27% of the global population can actually source all of their key food needs within 100 km of their location. This is especially true of seafood, with foreign imports to the United States being at least 62%.
Part of the argument to not source globally is due to the “food miles” associated with a product. However, a product that is air shipped even just 1,000 miles can have more than four times the carbon impacts of a product that is container shipped from halfway around the world. Even driving is not as carbon friendly as we might think when it comes to food transport. For example, driving products from Northern California to Southern California has the same carbon footprint as container shipping all the way from southeast Asia. With this noted, the reality is that in food production, transport accounts for a small percentage of overall CO2 emissions. Much more important to your food carbon footprint is what you are eating and how it is produced. For example, farmed shrimp has only 20% of the CO2 equivalents per kilogram vs. that of beef (from dedicated beef herd). In short, the carbon footprint argument has been overstated for imported seafood, which obscures the ways that human livelihoods and ecological outcomes are interconnected around the world.
Proponents of eating local also often argue that “fresh is better”. However, the advent of modern freezing methods allows for seafood to be frozen at its peak of freshness, and in many instances, the offering in a market freezer may actually be fresher (depending on your definition) than those in a seafood case. Furthermore, as technology continues to improve and become more accessible, the possibilities to support more types of seafood products from less industrialized countries will expand.
Problems in seafood sustainability are global in nature and therefore require global solutions. As western consumers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our buying power supports sustainability both locally and abroad.
Shaping the Future of Food Systems
It is time to start thinking about how we can contribute to the sustainability of the food systems we rely upon and help create healthy, resilient communities all around the world. We know the stories of chefs connecting with local producers and celebrating the stories of those products with their customers in their restaurants. There is no reason why we should not be able to form such partnerships at the national and international level.
Imagine, for example, a group of female shrimp farmers in Indonesia or Vietnam who are challenging gender norms in their communities while trying to earn a livelihood for their households. Is it fair (or ethical) to expect that they will simply overcome some of the cultural barriers that are in their way, or are there partnerships with chefs or key organizations such as the James Beard Foundation that should be formed to support them? The problem arises from the belief that “our country or our culture” comes first when in reality we need to embrace a more global mindset. If there is anything that the COVID-19 crisis is teaching us, it is that we are undoubtedly in this together, and our survival as a species on this planet will come down to our ability and willingness to accept this reality and construct our sustainability strategies and solutions accordingly.