Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Very Happy Thanksgiving

First of all, I do realize that Thanksgiving was last week, and I apologize for writing so belatedly to wish happy food-eating to those who have not yet given up on reading this blog. Also, many apologies for the long hiatus between posts. Somehow I neglected to realize how many things I’ve forgotten to write about, which I will attempt to remedy soon. Anyway, despite being an ocean away from the US, I had a lovely Thanksgiving here in Denmark, which was particularly exciting because I had an American visitor, who came bringing happiness and light and also pumpkin and cranberries.

Michelle with our real made-in-Denmark pumpkin pie:

Also, for good measure, here is a picture of me with our pumpkin pie. Note the adjacent bowl of whipped cream and be sure to compare the relative volumes of the whipped cream and the pumpkin.

We didn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday (although we did make pumpkin soup, which felt rather celebratory to me), but on Friday, a collection of Americans (and one Norwegian woman who had lived in Texas for seventeen years) living in Vendsyssel-Thy gathered at the guesthouse to have a sort of haphazard potluck Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t exactly traditional, but we made mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and apple crisp and other people brought a rather large amount of other foods including a duck. We even talked about American politics, which I guess tends to happen on the few occasions when a group of Americans living abroad gather together. (I can only imagine the discussions here on the 4th of July when the Americans gather to celebrate at a park in northern Denmark - northern Denmark holds the distinction of being the only place outside of the US to publicly celebrate America’s Independence Day).

We also managed to have a number of adventures outside the kitchen (although the cooking was a lot of fun too). These included spending an afternoon talking with one of the few inshore fishermen who has not left fishing under the new quota system in Denmark and who (mostly unsuccessfully) attempted to introduce us to a very strong Danish schnapps with wormwood (a “medicine”), learning a card trick from a very outgoing and excitable man on a train who introduced himself by comparing our rummy rules rather unfavorably with those he usually uses, and a successful expedition in the local timber production forest to meet some Danish sheep.

We were very excited about the sheep (this, for those of you unaware, because Michelle and I share a grand scheme for life that involves having our own sheep and goat farm).

There were also a number of other adventures, but these deserve posts of their own, so you can look for some more regular updates here coming soon!

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Changing Climate

I was a little surprised to discover a comment on my last post asking about the relationship between fossil fuel dependence and commercial fisheries - I was mostly surprised to discover that people other than my friends and family are reading this, but I was also surprised because it's something I've been thinking about as one of the long-term considerations for fisheries but is currently only a sideline discussion in most current fisheries management discourse. But that doesn't mean it's not being talked about - it just means it comes up in ways that, at least for me, have been rather unexpected. Energy use has become an increasingly common topic within the fishing industry as fuel prices have increased, but most of the time (though there are exceptions) this discussion is completely separate from any discussion of climate change. And awareness of global warming doesn't necessarily increase conservation tendencies - there haven't been any definitive studies on how changing climate will affect fish stocks, though it seems pretty much assured that the fish behavior and populations will be affected. This leads to a tendency (which may or may not be justified) to point to climate change rather than overfishing as an external environmental factor that is causing declining fish populations, and I also heard one criticism of the "precautionary approach" to fishing aimed towards rebuilding stocks saying that it would be a better idea to catch the fish while we can since there's always a chance they'll disappear anyway due to climate change.

The first major discussion I heard about commercial fishing's fossil fuel dependence was at the ICES science conference in Helsinki. One of the many "theme sessions" was entitled "Increasing energy costs and impact on fishers' activities and economics - another challenge for fishers and managers." This title is indicative of how most people within fisheries talk about fossil fuel dependence: it's all about costs. Just as Americans back home are slowly starting to take hybrid cars more seriously as the gas prices skyrocket, the fishing industry has started taking notice of their extensive energy use because paying for fuel is taking a large chunk out of already unpredictable profit margins. The research presented at ICES looked at a number of interesting possibilities to decrease fuel costs - running engines on bio-diesel (works in research setting, but largely impractical due to difficulties of attaining a regular fuel supply), changing fishing practices to reduce the amount of energy used steaming to fishing grounds (either by switching fishing grounds or going slower to use less fuel), or switching from energy-intensive active fishing gear like trawl nets (it takes a lot of engine power to drag a heavy net full of fish across the seafloor for an hour) to passive gear like hooks or gillnets.

What I found most surprising, though, was that I was in a room full of researchers at a science conference talking about reducing fossil fuel use and nobody was talking about climate change. Now maybe the world of professional science is so used to hearing about climate change that this was in the back of everyone's minds, or maybe I've spent too much time among environmental groups trying to convince Americans to do something about climate change that I always feel the need to connect energy efficiency and climate change, but I kept waiting for someone to mention how these changes would be the equivalent of taking so many cars off the road or at least save some Kyoto quota to use somewhere else. I suspect this is largely because it seemed unnecessary to mention and rather outside the purview of the fishing industry, the real target of this research.

I do agree that cost savings is indeed the easiest way to sell energy efficiency is cost savings to the fishing industry. Apparently 50% of the fishing quota value in Belgium goes to paying fuel costs for its beam trawlers (a very intensive fishing method requiring a lot of energy, also the dominant gear type in Belgium), which even if you don't care at all about climate seems like a pretty important issue. But I think it's also possible to use energy efficiency as a marketing strategy to help both increase the market prices of fish sold to the environmentally-conscious consumer, particularly since fishers and fish sellers have found it difficult to pass energy costs along to consumers - in supermarkets, fish pricing has to be competitive with pricing for chicken and other food alternatives (this is also another argument for looking at sustainable food supply as a whole). The commercial fishing industry has gotten a bad reputation as environmental villains which, despite legitimate problems with overfishing, is largely undeserved and the industry is working very hard to change. It might not work everywhere, but specially marketing fish as caught with a boat powered with bio-diesel or even just a boat that has altered its fishing practices to increase energy efficiency probably would sell more fish.

Marketing fish as "sustainable" has become increasingly important, particularly through independent certifications from the Marine Stewardship Council, and everyone seems to be trying to show that their fish is good for the environment as well as good for you. Even here in northern Jutland, supermarkets are advertising their fish with eco-friendly labels from WWF, which supports MSC labeling, despite the fact that the MSC has recommended against buying North Sea cod.
Apparently, environmentally-friendly sells - and as of yet, the market on fish that are green because they were caught using less fossil fuels appears to be open.

I had what I initially thought was a brilliant (and now think is probably just crazy, but still fun) idea during the ICES presentations that a really great way to market fish would be to develop a small-scale fishery using the most energy-efficient fuel out there: wind. The presenter I asked about this seemed a little taken aback at the suggestion - he mentioned that a German company has developed a sort of parachute sail that can be used to augment engine power in some situations, though he didn't seem very optimistic about its potential to be used on a large scale. But I wasn't thinking of parachutes...I was thinking of a good old-fashioned sailing schooner. Again, I don't know how effective this would be as a marketing strategy, but I thought it would be really cool to operate an historically-based fishery using sailing vessels and hook or longline passive gear - it preserves history and preserves the there must be someone out there who would pay extra for fish caught like this. You could also run the operation as a sort of museum, which could help support a small fishing town that has been forced to diversify away from fishing (I'm thinking of the role of the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður, Iceland). Obviously this is not something that could work on a large scale throughout an entire fishery, and I'm probably running away with myself because I have an overly-romantic attachment to old sailing boats, but it's still a fun idea.

But I digress.

There are some people here talking about climate change and fishing practices. At the North Sea Regional Advisory Council (NSRAC) meeting a few weeks ago, I met Knud Anderson, who represents the Danish Society for a Living Sea on the NSRAC's General Assembly (there was also a rather politically-charged debate on the technicalities of whether he could gain a seat on the more influential Executive Committee which ended with nobody, including Knud, being quite sure whether anything had been decided). Knud, a former fisherman, has turned his fishing boat into a traveling exhibition for a campaign to reduce energy use in the fishing industry.
The slogan on the banner means "Sea and climate - change the course." I'm not sure whether he has much chance of making headway among the fishing industry or affecting fishing policy - arguing for less energy use is largely a matter of arguing for smaller coastal fishing vessels rather than larger industrial-scale trawlers, which is not terribly popular among the large vessel operators who are becoming increasingly dominant in the industry (which, though he doesn't talk about this directly, makes this an issue that divides the business-driven model of fishing that seeks to make the industry profitable from the lifestyle-based model of fishing that dominates in floundering coastal communities).

I've been convinced for a while, though, that environmental issues (and often other issues too) should not be dealt with in isolation but rather should be considered as part of an interconnected whole (jury's still out on how to do this well, but ignoring relevant issues as "beyond our scope" seems like a bad idea). Knud has been arguing against following the MSC recommendation against North Sea cod, arguing that the labeling scheme doesn't take into account the low energy (and also lower environmental impact) fishing methods used by some of the local fishermen. In a speech in August, Knud said, "And when I...ask: 'Why is the fuel consumption in relation to the catch not taken in as a parameter in this Eco labeling, in a situation with the great threat from the climate changes?', then the answer is, that you should not mix the climate problems with the consumer’s choice of fish. The energy problem has to wait, the people from WWF believe. Our opinion in Living Sea is that such an approach is the same as giving up on environmental politics altogether!" I'm not sure whether I have much confidence he'll make headway, but I think he has a point. I haven't quite figured out my master plan for how to solve all the world's problems together, and it's probably not possible to implement one master plan all in one go, but it would definitely be a mistake not to consider fossil-fuel dependence and climate change in developing long term fisheries policy.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Vegetarian's Dilemma

One of the things that people have found most strange about me and my travels - second only to asking why a girl from Pittsburgh (after, with furrowed brows, they recollect that Pittsburgh and indeed all of Pennsylvania are quite decidedly inland locations) is studying fishing - is that I don't eat meat. While the concept of vegetarianism has become fairly common in the US and particularly in liberal western Massachusetts, it is fairly unusual in Iceland and Denmark. The lead scientist on the Icelandic shrimp survey seemed positively appalled that I had not tasted Icelandic lamb, and I've been able to redeem myself from my meatless oddity among quite a number of fishermen only because I still eat seafood. I've been thinking about food choices a lot recently, spurred partly because of this response and partly because an inherent question for me in studying fisheries is thinking about how fish fit in with overall food supply. After writing about the question of lobsters and ethical eating, I bought a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which has started me thinking much more coherently about that basic question he begins with: What should we eat for dinner?

The book is basically a personal journalistic investigation of the US food supply, in three separate sections - first, the industrial food supply, following government-subsidized petrochemically-fertilized midwestern corn through CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and processing plants to a McDonald's meal, then moving on to the organic food movement, both the large-scale "industrial organic" Whole Foods variety and the small-scale local and self contained "beyond organic" farm, and ending with an odd but interesting experiment in foraging for a meal by hunting and gathering the ingredients in Northern California. The first section on the critical flaw of oil dependence in America's industrial corn production and meat-producing industry is sufficiently shocking to rival the century-earlier exposé in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (and Pollan's writing style is far more enjoyable), and the investigation of how "organic" has come to mean something more like "a little bit better for the environment" than "actually sustainable and environmentally-sound" is an important reminder to people (myself included) who like the idea of picking up "free-range" eggs or "organic" milk and thinking no further. By the end, the book becomes less a journalistic investigation and more a personal exploration (both actual and philosophical) into questions of food source and choice. Though I definitely recommend the book to anyone who has ever tried to decipher supermarket labels, it by no means is the definitive source on food in America. It has gained a lot of publicity, and as a result also a fair amount of criticism that it doesn't live up to its purported excellence, but I think what's most important about it is that it encourages an honest, thoughtful investigation of where our food actually comes from. As a friend of mine who knows far more about food and has seen much more of the non-American world than I have just wrote about on her blog, the US is singularly unaware of how food gets to our tables.

For me, the question of why I don't eat meat surfaced again and again throughout the book. If anything made from standard subsidized and fertilized corn fields is contributing to climate change by demanding petrochemically-derived fertilizers, water pollution from excess fertilizer runoff, and perhaps even the US's oil-driven military exploits, I would probably do better to swear off high fructose corn syrup (i.e. every sweet processed food) than Icelandic lamb, which converts grass, a nutrient-supply humans can't digest, into the meat that has sustained Iceland for generations, and is the ultimate free-range animal - the farmers set them lose to the mountains in the spring and don't gather them again until the fall. Iceland in particular, and also to a large extent Denmark (and most of Europe), have very different food supply systems than the US. In Iceland, it is arguably much more sustainable to eat animal products grown off of the land that is not capable of producing crops humans can eat directly than to import food from all over the world or eat fruits and vegetables grown in greenhouses. Denmark, though less drastically different from the US, as a whole treats its animals better than a US CAFO - my milk, for instance, comes from right here in Hirtshals, and I see the cows grazing in the fields when I ride my bike along the coast.

The Icelandic sheep I failed to eat. They have a pretty good life, grazing along the coastline in Vestmannaeyjar in pretty much one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

My problem with eating meat is not in the concept of using an animal for food - I want to treat animals humanely and I want to generally eat sustainably, which in part of my reasoning against eating meat means eating lower in the food chain, but grass-fed animals that are raised on farms that treat the animals well (as the farmer Joel Salatin says in Pollan's book, letting a chicken act like a chicken) seem like an acceptable and yes, even sustainable, part of a balanced diet. My problem is that I only want to eat meat when I know where it came from, how it lived, and how it was killed. My eventual questioning of where meat comes from eventually brought me to deciding to call myself a vegetarian, which I consider more of a precautionary convenience than a philosophy. When I first began eating in a college dining hall, I quickly stopped eating the meat there, more for quality than for ethics (I ate various fried versions of chicken for a while until I realized that just because it seemed more appetizing because I couldn't see the meat didn't make it any better), and soon I was only eating meat at Hillel's kosher Friday night dinners and when I went home over breaks. After discovering that it was possible to go months without eating meat, it was easy to start asking myself why I was eating it at all. For a while, I limited myself to kosher or "organic" and "free-range" meat, but it wasn't a very convenient way of eating - one of Pollan's critiques of vegetarianism is that it inconveniences others, but I've generally found that it's more polite to simply label myself as a non-meat-eater than to ask a slew of questions about whether a cow was kept inside in overcrowded pens and how it was slaughtered before sitting down to a meal. For a while after I had essentially stopped eating meat, I resisted the term vegetarian, which tends to imply a much more determined anti-meat philosophy than I actually hold, but it similarly makes for a much more awkward conversation to try to explain my nuanced views on eating meat than to just tell someone I'm vegetarian.

But ideally, it should be possible to change the way food is produced so that I wouldn't find it necessary to not eat meat - which, as Pollan points out, does not mean I'm eating food that is any better for the environment. Changing the food production system in the US to a more integrated, more "natural" system that uses energy and resources more efficiently by recycling waste (manure as fertilizer, pest insects as food for chickens, etc.) and avoiding non-renewable energy inputs would make food more expensive, but also reduce the overall costs to the economy (from farm subsidies to healthcare costs brought on by unhealthy diets to the many costs of oil dependence). This is one of the few arenas where it is possible for individuals to really change society, since everyone has to get food from somewhere, and choosing food from local, sustainable sources has the added benefit of being not just good for the environment but good for your health and usually a whole lot tastier too.

In the mean time, though I've sometimes questioned whether I should keep eating seafood when it's often not caught from sustainable fish stocks or from low on the food chain, the fact that much of the world's seafood supply still comes from wild stocks "hunted" by fishermen seems an important reason to keep eating seafood. Though most people don't know where their food comes from, when living in a fishing community, seeing the boats in the harbor, and sometimes even buying your dinner directly from a fisherman coming back to port at the end of the day, the connection isn't quite so distant. And, much the same way grass-fed animals take a resource we can't eat and turn it into something we can, most wild-caught fish are taking resources people can't (or won't) eat - algae, krill, small crustaceans and fish - and turning them into something we can. Though it is certainly important to make sure we don't catch too many fish to keep them from being able to replenish the population, fish are one of the few foods we have left where we regularly remember to think about where they come from, and that the answer is from nature and not from the supermarket. (This is also part of why I find it ridiculous to suggest that a more "sustainable" way of eating fish is to substitute wild with farm-raised fish. Although it's too complicated to go into here, like in agriculture, there are a variety of methods of raising farmed fish that determine whether the operation is good for both the fish and the environment. The context, however, is far different from agriculture, both because of the difference in the ocean versus terrestrial environment and because we have not yet domesticated fish. I suspect that this suggestion is based on the false conceit that the ocean is some kind of "last wilderness" that we must preserve rather than recognizing that the ocean's ecosystems, like the rest of the world, have been profoundly affected by human influence.)

These cod were brought to the dock on the fishing boat that had caught them that day just the night before I saw them sold at the 7am fish auction in Hirtshals. And if that's not fresh enough for you, some people go down to the docks and buy the fish directly from the fishermen right as they pull into the harbor.

Right now, fish are the only animal I eat as food because I know where they come from and how they got from the ocean to me (also because they're the only animal I've killed myself, which I'm fairly sure I will have to do before I could go back to eating any other meat). But it doesn't have to be that way, and I like to think that if people start asking about their food before they eat, sustainability can become a more natural part what goes through our minds when we go to the grocery store - and thus also a more natural part of what goes into deciding how to produce our food.