James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

June 24, 2009

Fish Farming

Filed under: food — James @ 1:11 am

I’ve never been particularly partial to fish. I suppose I could blame it on growing up in Iowa but I know plenty of people back home who like them, even catch freshwater fish themselves. Regardless, the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t eat a lot of fish. But if I were looking for fish, my preference would be for tilapia. More below.

A lot of tilapia production is farmed. Real farmed, not the travesty that passes for farming of species like salmon. In the United States tilapia are often produced in closed cycle aquaculture farms that harvest waste heat from power and ethanol plants, so there’s no issues with contamination of water supplies, escaped fish competing with wild species, or diseases and pests breeding among the farmed fish jumping to wild populations (I’m looking at you salmon farms). The fish are feed midwestern soybeans, they don’t compete for food with wild populations (once more with the contrast to salmon farming).

Tilapia farmed in the rest of the world are grown in isolated lakes, or (even more cool!) released into flooded rice patties where they grow to maturity as the rice grows, and finally the fish and rice are harvested together. Now that’s agriculture!

After tilapia, I’d say the best case could be made for eating farmed catfish for a lot of the same reasons. Doesn’t compete for food with wild populations, often grown in controlled conditions, eats low of the food chain.

Eating low on the food chain is essential, a trait tilapia and catfish share. Tuna and salmon on the other hand are predators. The whole idea of farming fish that eat other fish is inefficient in the first place! All the arguments vegetarians make about the inefficiency of eating meat (trading calories 10 to 1 from the grain fed to cows to the energy we get from eating the beef), apply even more the farther up the food chain you go. There’s a reason polar bears and pumas don’t make good farm animals. Imagine growing grain to feed to cows and pigs that were in turn feed to a pen full of pumas, 99% of the energy embodied in the grain would be lost by the time you’re chewing on a puma burger.

That’s the power of agriculture. We can figure out the species it’s most efficient to cultivate, improve production techniques, even improve the species through selective breeding or (gasp!) genetic modification, and then we can produce lots and lots of fish without burdening wild fisheries. Honestly, it seems most seafood production still operates within a world that shares far more with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle than the highly efficient agricultural society we’ve developed on land. By choosing farmed tilapia and farmed catfish maybe we can do a little bit to change that.

So I guess I’ve talked myself into eating fish fillets after the next time I hit up a groceries store. Which means I need to e-mail a guy I know out here who makes a delicious cajun fried tilapia.

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