Back in high school I was shown a TedTalk that stuck with me to this day. This particular talk given by a chef by the name of Dan Barber who discussed sustainable protein sources from his perspective as a chef. Barber spends much of his talk on a farm he sources his fish from in southeast Spain that practices aquaculture. You can watch the TedTalk for yourself here.
Over the past 50 years, the fishing industry has been fishing the oceans similar to the way the agricultural industry has been clear cutting forests. Some of the most commonly consumed fish such as tuna, and halibut have witnessed some of the worst population declines as they are fished in such high yields, that their populations do not have time to recover before being fished again.
One alternative to fishing the oceans is setting up fish farms however, there are a lot of environmental downsides as they create a lot of pollution, and are extremely inefficient. As Barber states in his talk, for a standard commercial tuna farm, it takes about fifteen pounds of tuna to produce one pound for consumption. In other words, for every fifteen pounds of tuna raised on a fish farm, only one pound can be consumed.
Another, and better, alternative to commercial fishing (and commercial fish farming) is a method of raising fish known as aquaculture.
But What IS Aquaculture?
To put it simply aquaculture, or aquafarming, is the cultivation freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions; the methods used can be contrasted with commercial fishing done in the oceans as aquaculture is heavily influenced by the growing need to find new, more sustainable protein sources to feed a large number of people while reducing environmental impact of protein production and consumption globally.
Compared to the alternatives such as commercial fishing, which is primarily responsible for rapid fish population declines, and commercial fish farms which are inefficient and create a lot of pollution, aquaculture, if done right can actually help the environment as proven by the aquaculture project on the Veta La Palma Estate.
The Veta La Palma Estate- a Model for Fish Production
When I heard the fish farming activities at Veta La Palma Estate described by Barber, I immediately began to wonder why farms like it weren’t more common.
The fish farming activities carried out on the estate benefit the environment in numerous ways.
First, the introduction of fish to marshlands in southeast Spain that is home to the Veta La Palma Estate attracted different types of both nesting and migratory birds. Though these birds consume the fish meant to be raised for human consumption- 20% of fish and fish e eggs to be exact- the birds measure the health of the farm’s ecosystem. The farm at Veta La Palma measures it’s own success by the success of the fish’s predators, the birds. Furthermore, the Veta La Palma Estate is important to the conservation of European birds as these artificial wetlands provide food for numerous different species of birds allowing them to grow and reproduce.
In an ecology summary on the Verta La Palma’s website linked and referenced above, further ecological benefits both for the farm and surrounding environment are explained:
The extensive farming ponds are characterised by their stability in terms of the area flooded (8000 acres), depth (40-50 cm), renovation level (1 hm3/day in summer) and salt content. This helps to reduce the impact of changes in the levels of salt content and water as well as the concentration of nutrients in the estuary, thereby contributing to a massive development of micro-algae which are capable of assimilating the excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. In this way, the water from Veta la Palma which is returned to the river is of exceptional quality in terms of its physical and micro-biological properties. Furthermore, the creation of more than 100 islands in the ponds for the nesting of waterfowl together with the revegetation of 93 miles of banks, have improved the landscape of the estate considerably. The artificially flooded areas also play a vital role in the protection of the natural fish population of the estuary of the Guadalquivir itself including migratory species such as the common eel or striped mullet, and other species which complete part of their natural cycle in the estuary such as sole, maegre, or sea bass, as well as marine species such as the black sea anchovy or wedge sole…Veta la Palma is part of both the Doñana Biosphere Reserve and the Natura 2000 Network, and has been designated a RAMSAR site of international importance.
The Veta La Palma Estate also helps to clean up the oceans. The rivers running into the estate are like any typical rivers, full of pollution from pesticide runoff and from other human activities. Once the polluted water of these rivers makes it’s way through the estate to the ocean, it’s been filtered and purified by the rich ecosystem leaving the water cleaner than the water was prior to entering the ecosystem. This may be just a ‘drop in the ocean’ but it is a drop nonetheless; the farm is literally a water purification plant.
Lastly, and most importantly in my opinion, the Veta La Palma Estate is completely self sufficient and requires no additional, excessive resources to maintain. As Barber notes in notes talk, the fish farm on the Veta La Palma Estate is so rich that the fish are eating what they would in the wild i.e. phytoplankton and algae. The fish ‘farmers’ at Veta La Palma do NOT have to feed their animals AND the farm ecosystem is so healthy, rich, and diverse that it it completely self sufficient and renewing. This should be reason enough for developing more farms like the Veta La Palma Estate, if not for environmental reasons, for economic ones as the fish farmers would no longer need to purchase feed and other costly resources needed to maintain a commercial fish farm.
I suppose an argument against developing more farms like the Veta La Palma Estate could be related to the specifics required to make a fully enclosed ecosystem as we do not have an excess of land specifically, marshland. This could quickly be addressed simply by pointing out that Florida is sinking. Florida is home to a lot of agriculture i.e. orange and citrus farming, that requires a lot of water.
A breakdown of Florida’s most recent groundwater use by the USGS states the following:
Agricultural irrigation accounted for 40 percent and was the largest of the total freshwater withdrawn (ground and surface), followed by public supply with 37 percent.
Public supply (52 percent) and agricultural irrigation (31 percent) used the largest volumes of fresh groundwater
Agricultural irrigation (56 percent) used the largest volume of fresh surface water in 2005, followed by power generation (20.5 percent), public supply (13 percent), recreational irrigation (6 percent), and commercial-industrial-mining self-supplied (4.5 percent).
This water is being pumped from the ground causing Florida to sink. Furthermore, a lot of Florida’s marshy wetlands have been destroyed for both commercial development, and farmlands.
Scientists are working to protect, maintain, and restore the wetlands, and one way could potentially be to cut back on the intensive agriculture that is rapidly pumping out groundwater causing the state to literally sink into the ocean.
Now I know there are many factors making restoration of the Everglade marshlands somewhat difficult, but scientists are making progress, and before drainage of the Everglades began, the region in Florida was home to many fish populations; why not make the Everglades home to fish populations again by developing the regions into a protected and carefully monitored aquaculture farm.
Can Sustainable Methods of Food Production i.e. Aquaculture Feed the World?
This is a very complex issue, but according to Barber and his research, the short answer is yes, despite the fact billions of people go hungry everyday. But the issue does not lie with methods of food production as we are already producing far more than enough food and calories to feed the word, the issue with the distribution of resources. The current distribution is extremely uneven.
One potential fix is outlined by FeedtheWorld as is as followed:
The Small Scale Agriculture Model (SSAM) has been in development for many years and has proven itself as a very effective way to provide long-term, sustainable solutions to the world’s extreme poverty problems using principles of nutritional self reliance. Families graduating from our program have been taught and mentored in implementing methods based on the SSAM, combined with dedication and hard work. These new skills give our participant families the foundation they need to meet their own nutritional needs, to create permanent change in their families, and to make a lasting impact on their communities. Our powerful system is composed of the following modules:
At Feed the World, sustainable farming means two things:
- The program is designed based on the resources available in that specific area, using the tools that are available and familiar to the smallholder farm families. We focus on lasting self reliance, as families obtain sufficient knowledge and education, manage resources wisely, and prepare for the future so that they will continue to thrive after our support ends.
- Feed the World’s focus is on helping families understand how to sustainably farm different types of crops at the right times of the year in order to nourish their land and prevent the loss of precious nutrients in the soil. We want these families to see agriculture as a long-term sustainable solution, rather than a “quick fix.”