In the first of a new column in which Doctor Feelgood look at issues that effect us, and thinks up solutions, Gary Steel’s sensitive nose gets offended by something fishy.
I RECEIVED A finely wrought piece of press release puffery the other day from an organisation that calls itself WorldFish.
The press release promoted the idea that the solution to the vast number of Bangladeshi mothers and infants who are undernourished is to eat meals accompanied by a chutney containing a a supplement fortified with small fish. Literally.
A report had been generated by WorldFish scientists who had been working together with researchers from the University of Queensland together with private sector partners; a report that had found that “small indigenous fish when paired with other locally sourced ingredients are an ideal source for improving the nutrient intake of pregnant and lactating women and infants.”
On the face if it, this might seem like a really great idea. It’s clear that there’s a nutrition problem amongst Bangladeshi mothers, and the fish chutney offers a way to “contribute optimal nutrition during the [vital] first 1000 days of life, due to their content of both fatty acids and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin B12, which are often considered ‘problem nutrients’, particularly in low-income countries.”
But hang on a minute, is a chutney containing the remains of millions of tiny fish really the solution to the problem of malnourishment in Bangladesh, and should we take the word of an organisation that exists to support the promotion of fish consumption?
WorldFish calls itself “an international, nonprofit organisation that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty.” If you take away the advertised philanthropic intentions, WorldFish is a thinly disguised portal through which the industries that stand to profit from a fishy future get to propagandise imaginary benefits to the community.
Now, I’m not contending that the people who work for WorldFish are involved in any way with fish foisting as a profit motive – they probably really believe that there is a sustainable future in “aquaculture” and that eating fish on an industrial scale will help to solve the food crisis that growing populations are blamed with creating.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that those who stand to profit from the ongoing exploitation of fish (and those currently involved in the depletion of fish stocks worldwide) have a lot to gain by supporting more fish consumption, and therefore, a lot to gain by supporting WorldFish.
So, why is this fishy chutney such a wrong-headed idea? Isn’t it important to get the wheels in motion to provide the right nutrients for these malnourished mothers?
First off, Bangladesh is a malnourished country. Why is that? Surprise, surprise: it’s because the government there provide very little in terms of services or healthcare. Its population is huge, but it’s also a major centre of industry, which presumably means that there’s a lot of cash to be had for the lucky ones that run the place. And hardly anything left for the average workers once the greedy ones have run off with the spoils.
If Bangladeshi government was truly democratic, and government took its responsibility seriously to deal with both the exploding population (through birth control) and its malnutrition problem (by instigating social services and egalitarian policies that heavily taxed the rich and provided proper living wages), then it could sort out its own problems without resorting to fish chutney foisted on them by predatory Western countries. And if those Western countries really had a global agenda to fix this rotten world, their governments could create a coalition to pressure each other to create more egalitarian societies; societies that cared for people, and provided for them, without the interference or intervention of profit-motivated fisheries.
Even looking at the fish chutney scenario with rose coloured spectacles, it still smells like the perpetual ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, dealing not with the cause of the near-starvation, but the symptoms.
And then there’s the ethics of fish harvesting to consider. Bangladeshi women could get all the nutrients they need for healthy infants entirely through vegetarian food, at a tiny proportion of the price. The vast majority of Bangladeshis are Muslims, so unlike Hindus, they probably won’t have a problem with meat and fish, but how can you slaughter fish in a Halal fashion – especially tiny fish? Regardless, the fact that endless evidence-based research clearly identifies a vegetarian diet as superior to any other, and the fact that it’s based on resources that are on our doorstep, and the fact that you don’t need an industrial-sized machine to provide vegetables but you can even maybe grow them yourselves, should really tell us how stupid this fishy idea really is.
Then there’s this bullshit about “aquaculture”, as if it’s natural to “harvest” fish in controlled fisheries, and that no problems occur as a result. Maybe all the research isn’t in quite yet, but in time, we’ll discover that much like battery chickens, fish don’t really do what fish are built to do when they’re grown by humans in captive situations.
But there’s one more compelling argument against this small fish chutney. We’re slowly discovering more about the cognitive abilities of fish, and it’s something we don’t want to know about, but fish are sentient beings, too. And that means one thing: fish are capable of suffering. And because they’re small fish (while less laden with human-produced toxins than large fish in polluted seas) that means that more of them have to be sacrificed to each human appetite.
The size issue isn’t a small one (if you’ll excuse the humour). It’s the same comparison between eating a chicken or a cow. At least the meat of one cow will feed a lot of human stomachs, but a lot of small fish have to die to feed one human stomach. Is it worth that sacrifice, that death, that suffering, when we could be helping to save the starving masses with a plant-based diet?
I hate to think how much money went into this SmallFish report. Heck, I hate to think how much money went into the dissemination of the report alone! Perhaps those well-meaning people at SmallFish could just grab the loot those pro-fishing lobbyists are throwing at them and fling it randomly at malnourished Bangladeshi mothers. It would probably do more good. GARY STEEL
* CRITICAL MASSAGE is a new column that looks at issues of the day, and tries to see the wood for the trees.