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“For Cod and Country”

I had the opportunity this week to attend the Institute of Medicine’s Food Forum Workshop on “Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.” The purpose of the meeting was to explore current and emerging knowledge on the food and nutrition policy implications of the increasing environmental challenges on the food system. The presenters adeptly and holistically addressed global sustainability issues by exploring the trade-offs between human and environmental health in a variety of contexts.

In the context of sustainable commodity sourcing, chef Barton Seaver spoke eloquently about the need to define “sustainability” more broadly and without historic reference. Rather than thinking about simply maintaining the current state of the environment, we need to improve and appropriately bolster its capacity. In particular, Chef Seaver pointed out that we often forget to ask what we are trying to sustain.

That answer is obvious, he asserted. “We’re trying to sustain human reality on the planet. Health is really the main driver of sustainability.”

Turning to the ocean’s health and the supply of seafood, he noted, “Not so long ago the ocean’s bounty seemed to have no limit. Now we know better. Efficient fishing fleets and an ever growing hunger for seafood have pushed many of the world’s fisheries to the brink. A shocking 70 percent are exploited, overexploited, or have already suffered a collapse—and the problem is much bigger than a few missed meals.”

Using the analogy of a diving board, he said that we like to eat only the “sexy” fish in the US — cod, tuna, salmon — the ones at the bouncy end. These fish are at the top of the food chain. We need to start drawing from the solid base of the diving board — the little fish (sardines), mussels, clams, oysters — the seafood that is meant to support the food chain.

Currently, the seafood fishery system is based on undue demand. Thus, the price for pollock — a flaky, white fish — should be the same as cod — another flaky, white fish. But, we’re so obsessed with cod, that a fisherman only fishes for cod and discards everything else in the net in order to try to make a living because he gets paid a lot better for cod then pollock.

Chef Seaver concluded that we need to base the economy of fisheries on supply (those little  fish that are closer to the bottom of the food chain and at the base of the diving board) not on demand. “So, next time you want a flaky, white fish for a recipe,  ask your fish monger for that. Don’t ask for cod.”

Want to do your part to make more sustainable seafood choices?Look here for sustainable substitutes and here for some great recipe ideas.

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