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A Meat Eater’s Dilemma: When Both Surf and Turf are Trouble

Mark Bittman’s Saturday Article in the New York Times exposed fish farms as rife with unbalanced feed to food ratios, environmentally degrading practices and negative effects on biodiversity (not to mention palate diversity). He also says that farmed fish tastes bad. I guess it turns out that CAFOs and Fish Farms have more in common than a penchant for scandalous kashrut practices.

According to Bittman, industrial fish farming “spends an estimated $1 billion a year on veterinary products; degrades the land; pollutes local waters (according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, a salmon farm with 200,000 fish releases nutrients and fecal matter roughly equivalent to as many as 600,000 people); and imperils wild populations that come in contact with farmed salmon.” In addition, species like sardines, anchovies and herring that are not as popular with the bipedal crowd are ground up and fed to everything on four legs and fins, including pigs, cattle and farmed fish. Nearly a third of the world’s wild-caught fish, according to Bittman, are ground into meal and ingested by these remarkably inefficient industries. The article covers other possible methods for sustainable fish farming and points out positive examples in China and Alaska that give cause for hope in restoring the ocean’s depleted populations if we change our eating and fishing habits.

For Jews, the diet change imperative hits home. The majority of American Jews are heirs to the dietary traditions of Europe, the world’s second largest consumer of fish. In addition to all that lox, herring and gefilte fish baggage, add kashrut. All a fish has to do to be kosher is get born with scales and fins. Even if you’re orthodox you can buy a kosher fish anywhere, as long as some of the skin is showing so that you can verify the species. This makes it much simpler and cheaper to serve than kosher meat. In her rules on how to eat socially while still observing kashrut, Blu Greenberg suggests asking hosts to serve kosher fish cooked in tinfoil to Jewish guests. It’s a good solution to reconcile dietary mores with social ones, but of course as ethical eaters, we’d also be committing ourselves and our hosts to using wild-caught fish, which is much more expensive, in general, than the tasteless and derided farmed varieties.

We’d need to commit our synagogues as well. If your synagogue is anything like mine, gefilte fish and pickled herring are standard at every Saturday kiddush. Finding ethical sources for those traditional foods might not be sustainable financially. Of course, the easiest answer would be dropping fish altogether, especially salmon, and especially for institutions that can’t afford to do it right. For example, Alix Wall wrote this article on the Hazon conference’s consternation over lox. Maybe it is time we start eating more smoked sardines and less “smoked” farmed salmon.

It’s common knowledge that kashrut is an expensive commitment to make, so perhaps kosher-keepers are more mentally prepared to pay more for their food or forgo it in order to meet moral requirements, whether religiously or environmentally-based. We’re definitely more prepared to eat herring than the average American, and according to Mark Bittman, that’s a start.

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5 Responses to “A Meat Eater’s Dilemma: When Both Surf and Turf are Trouble”

  1. Larry Lennhoff Says:

    Rabbi Blue Greenberg suggests asking hosts to serve kosher fish cooked in tinfoil to Jewish guests

    Ah, no. Blu Greenberg, author of How To Run A Traditional Jewish Household, does make such a suggestion. However, she is not a rabbi. Also, in many cases a Jew will have to be involved in cooking the fish or else many Orthodox Jews will not be allowed to eat it.

  2. Nina Budabin McQuown Says:

    oops, my mistake, that’s fixed. Thanks for pointing it out!

  3. Gersh Says:

    “In his rules on how to eat socially while still observing kashrut, Blu Greenberg suggests asking hosts to serve kosher fish cooked in tinfoil to Jewish guests.”

    Blanche “Blu” Greenberg, one of the founding members of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, author of “On Women and Judaism”, IS A WOMAN. Even the most perfunctory google search could tell you that.

  4. Nina Budabin McQuown Says:

    Yup, clearly I relied on memory rather than a perfunctory Google search on this one, proven to be a mistake every time. That’s fixed too.

  5. Brenda Says:

    We will be digging into these issues at the Hazon Food Conference in December. The changes that need to be made in the way the world eats are very profound. And the value of eating lower on the food chain is becoming
    more and more clear. Actually Sephardic cuisine has a lot to offer in that realm.

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