Something Fishy

Taking food seriously can be a pain in the ass. I'm still trying to process Michael Pollan's remarkable The Omnivore's Dilemma. Should I think twice about shopping at Whole Foods Market? Is it possible for your average, thoughtful consumer to know with any real certainty that he or she is purchasing food raised ethically, sustainably and — the real kicker — locally? And, the question that nags me still, even if it is possible, is it practical?

Now I have to contend with an equally remarkable and maybe even more troubling book: The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat by Charles Clover, the environment editor of London's Daily Telegraph. This passage, from the introduction, makes clear the gravity of Clover's argument:

As a method of mass destruction, fishing with modern technology is the most destructive activity on Earth. It is no exaggeration to say that overfishing is changing the world. Overfishing, as a direct result of the demand by consumers in the world's wealthier countries, threatens to deprive developing countries of food in order to provide delicacies for the tables of rich countries, and looks set to rob tomorrow's generations of healthy food supplies so that companies can maintain profitability today.

Clover indicts nearly every single aspect of the fishing industry, from the giant trawlers that strip-mine the ocean and skirt local and international maritime laws by flying under "flags of convenience," to big-name chefs who unwittingly or cynically serve such threatened species as Patagonian toothfish (a.k.a. "Chilean sea bass") and bluefin tuna, to fishermen who harp on public sympathy to maintain what Clover believes are wholly unnecessary government subsidies.

The writing is crisp but impassioned, and Clover is a dogged journalist, exploding the received wisdom about, for example, fish farming and "dolphin-safe" tuna and reaching the surprising (to him and to this reader) conclusion that one of the most responsible purchasers of seafood is, of all corporations, McDonald's.

The End of the Line is a must-read if you're concerned about the provenance and sustainability of what you eat. And if you eat seafood regularly — most of us, these days — you should be required by law to read The End of the Line before your next trip to the supermarket or sushi bar.

-Ian Froeb

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