I love reading food magazines, and I have been looking for inspiration recently for the festive season. But reading different magazines, I have been shocked at some of the glaring missed opportunities around encouraging sustainability and consumer awareness about food choices, particularly fish and seafood.
Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat commented on the role of celebrity chefs that they are:
“the leaders in the field of food, and we are the led. Why should the leaders of chemical businesses be held responsible for polluting the marine environment with a few grams of effluent, which is sublethal to marine species, while celebrity chefs are turning out endangered fish at several dozen tables a night without enduring a syllable of criticism?”.
It’s an interesting comment for me. I agree that we are indeed the led in this respect, but I’m not sure that restaurant menus are the only or even the most influential part of celebrity chef status. In terms of numbers alone, I wouldn’t mind betting that celebrity chef led restaurant menus have a smaller circle of influence than their recipe books and recipes used by magazines and newspapers. And I also feel that Clover comes unfairly close to trying to saddle celebrity chefs with a blame and responsibility that we should all share.
Having said that, I was stunned and disappointed to see a Rick Stein recipe using swordfish, taken from one of his recipe books, in the Christmas issue of Essentials magazine. Maybe Rick Stein and his restaurants would only ever use sustainable fish and seafood. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But for the rest of us, whilst it is possible to buy ‘sustainable’ swordfish, there is an awful lot of unsustainable swordfish packaged up for supermarkets and fishmongers too. How many people really think about the implications of what they are putting on their plates?
- able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
- involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
Swordfish may be found all over the world, but that is not to say that global stocks are healthy. In some locations numbers are in severe decline due to overfishing. Worldwide, the vast majority of swordfish commercial fishing is done using long lines. It is an unbelievably unsustainable, un-environmentally sensitive fishing technique. Literally a really, really long length of fishing line, with thousands of hooks on it. Lines can be as ‘small’ as a couple of kilometres long, right up to 100 kilometres (that is not a typo – 100 kilometres!), with secondary hooked lines branching off the main line.
The long lining fishing industry is ripping the swordfish out of the oceans in huge numbers. It might make you think that if those numbers are being caught then there must be plenty to go around. But we are literally fishing an ever dwindling pool of supply. The huge scale, highly efficient fishing techniques today mean that swordfish populations are being hit far faster than they can reproduce in order to maintain a sustainable population.
Swordfish happen to have particularly slow reproduction and maturation rates. But they are certainly not the only fish to be affected by the imbalance between our plundering of the oceans, and the breathing space we are allowing fish stocks, in order to enable them to replenish and recover.
Aside from the fact that a fishing line extending tens of kilometres can take huge numbers of fish out of the water, indiscriminate of maturity and size, it also takes horrifying amounts of by-catch. By-catch is anything other than the unintended fish species. It includes other (potentially less sustainable) species of fish, as well as sea turtles, sharks, whales, dolphins, seals and sea birds. And much of that wasted sea life is hauled into the boat, unhooked and then dumped overboard, dead or dying.
I think too many food industry leaders, chefs, consumers and foodies have gone on for far too long turning a blind eye to the scale of the environmental havoc we are wreaking for the fish on our plates. It doesn’t help either that, for many people, what is going on under the waves is literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’. So whilst I don’t think the blame rests with them alone, I do think it is at best deeply unhelpful, when celebrity chefs, food writers and other influential people in the food industry don’t do their utmost to dispel misinformation and encourage a more sensitive and sustainable approach to food consumption.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a British organisation which is trying to set new standards for a global approach to sustainable fishing practices. It says:
“Our vision is for the world’s oceans to be teeming with life – today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.
By choosing MSC labelled seafood, you reward fisheries that are committed to sustainable fishing practices.”
Organisations like MSC and marine conservation charities and organisations such as Bite-Back, Marine Conservation Society UK, Sea Shepherd, Ocean Elders (to name just a tiny number of the many globally established marine focused charitable organisations) do incredible work influencing global policy and legislation, raising funding and awareness to support the cause. But they can struggle to reach those who aren’t already tuned in to the marine conservation and protection agenda. Which is where celebrity endorsement and support comes in.
I salute celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Branson, Alan Davies, Sylvia Earle and Katy Melua, amongst many others, for their vocal support of ocean conservation and protection. And influential chefs and food industry experts like Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsay, and Thomasina Miers are adding their considerable support to the cause. We are a hugely media-driven society, and when celebrities are showing up at events, tweeting their support, and committing their ‘brand’ to a cause, that is when the rest of the world starts to sit up and notice. It makes people rethink their own approach.
Thomasina Miers, in an interview for the November edition of BBC GoodFood magazine, talked about the importance of sustainability for her. It was something that she became passionate about during her time at Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland:
“At Ballymaloe, they think about the whole cycle of food – where it comes from, how it’s grown, the effect on the planet. It made me think about food in a completely new way. Recently we won an award at Wahaca [her Mexican food chain] from the Marine Stewardship Council for the best use of MSC fish on a menu. It was lovely recognition of the importance we attach to it.”
It is so heartening to see chefs really walking the walk. When chefs are creating new and interesting menus for their restaurants and cookery books, talking about their passion for sustainability, it inspires a generation of food lovers to follow suit.
I’m not saying that people should stop eating fish. We all make our choices, based on a complex combination of factors including health, ethics, lifestyle, food preferences, availability and affordability. But I think we all owe it to ourselves, our oceans and our future generations to do the very best we can to make our choices as sustainable as possible. Celebrity chefs could and should give us the push we need, but we can all make more of an effort to take these steps on our own two feet.