Book review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

I chose Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg as part of my desire to learn more about the seafood I consume. I feel like I have a handle on what labels mean when it comes to treatment and nutritional content for meat and poultry, but for seafood the water is murky (if you can pardon the pun). Which is better? Farmed or wild? What do those words mean and is it different for types of species? How do we catch wild fish and how do we create fish farms?

I started eating seafood after I had a confirmed test that I was not allergic to shellfish, and around the time that Mark and I visited Boston on our honeymoon. It felt like a whole new culinary world was open to me. (Hello New England clam chowder.) But before I read (listened to) this book, I am ashamed to say I pretty much didn’t know what any of that seafood looked like before it was prepared for me to eat, let alone where it came from or what it ate. I still cannot tell you what different types of fish look like, except for maybe carnival goldfish or beta fish.

Like Twinkie: Deconstructed that I recently read, Four Fish is bursting with information that detail nerds will adore. The storytelling is a great frame for all this information; it doesn’t just read like just a bunch of facts. And I thought it had appropriate perspective: Greenberg fishes. He also relates a story about being shocked while on a party boat of people fishing that someone told him that Greenberg could have his dead fish, since he wouldn’t eat them. What is the point of killing a fish (as opposed to catch and release) if you aren’t going to eat it?

Greenberg highlights the plight of fish by highlighting the situations of four different types: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Each story is as different as the species are, but there are common themes – exploitation, over fishing, growing consumer demand, domestic farming operations (successful and unsuccessful, small scale and large scale), and that each species has particular needs. His book also raises a philosophical question of sorts that I had never stopped to consider. At what point do we consider living food that we eat wildlife, as opposed to just a food animal?

People balk at eating horse meat, but we have no problem eating beef, which comes from another four-legged mammal. At one point, it was common for humans to hunt for whales and eat them and use them for their oil. When their existence was endangered, people began a “campaign” of sorts to look at the whale as a species of wildlife that needed to be saved for the sake of its existence alone, not saved in order to find a way to continue to hunt it. Bluefin tuna is endangered too, but do we consider it wildlife or just a food resource?

After reading this book, it feels like the best direction is to support domestic farming of fish that has a constant eye on and consideration of the balance of the wild populations. We need to not give into consumer demand for particular fish as much as we need to be careful what fish we choose for our consumption – those which are efficient in converting energy. (It takes 20 pounds of food to create one pound of bluefin tuna. That’s insane.) This also has to do with the amount of fish we consume. Do we keep consuming more just because we can? Domestic farming of fish has to be non-destructive to wild populations of fish, where common diseases of domestication are less likely to spread to wild populations.

One of my favorite sentences of the whole book is when Greenberg says it ultimately comes down to approaching seafood with these three things: restraint, care and rationality. So you don’t really finish this book with exactly an idea of what fish to eat and which ones not to (although it’s a definite no on the bluefin tuna). But you walk away with much more of an appreciation for what a fish really is – a living creature – that demands as much respect as a food source as I give to cows, pigs and chickens.

Greenberg does mention the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has a rating system for what the “best” choices are for seafood to eat. They also have an app, so you can look it up on the go if you aren’t interested in keeping a card in your wallet. I think I’m going to start with this guide for my seafood choices until I can continue to do more research.

Also, Four Fish was written just as word was getting out that genetically engineered salmon was on the horizon. Now it’s almost to the point of FDA approval (with no labeling requirement, big surprise), and Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Aldi have come out in advance pledging not to carry GE salmon at their stores.

Whole Foods takes a stand on GMOs

In early March, Whole Foods made a big announcement: beginning in 2018, they would not carry products that were not labeled with their GMO (genetically modified organisms) status. While the U.S. does not have any rules about the labeling of GMO foods, 60 other countries in the world do. 

Transparency in food labeling is not a novel idea worldwide. But in the U.S., it is. And Whole Foods is taking the step to become the first grocery chain to require labeling. They are setting a 5-year deadline in order to have time to work with their suppliers. Even as the national debate still rages, they are making a stand on their own, which I respect. 

It’s no secret I’m a loyal customer. But that’s part of the reason I’m so happy with this decision. Consider this from their press release:

We heard our customers loud and clear asking us for GMO labeling and we are responding where we have control: in our own stores.

Regardless of whether it reflects the “moral standards” of the company itself (which I think that it does), they have listened to their customers. This is a company that has grown leaps and bounds by providing the best shopping experience out there and by providing the products that consumers are demanding. 

More than 1.5 million people have come out in support of the Just Label It campaign to federally require labeling of GMOs. To me, the argument goes beyond whether or not GMOs have harmful effects on humans. I deserve to know what goes in my food, and until science can determine whether or not GMOs are harmful, I would like to have the privilege of not consuming them. 

Why should companies be afraid to label their foods if they have nothing to hide? Those opposed to the labeling effort claim that consumers would be confused about the ingredients and believe that GMOs are harmful. How about these companies start giving consumers the benefit of the doubt and stop treating us like second graders when it comes to what knowledge we can handle? 

More independent research (read: not funded by industry) needs to be done on the long-term effects of GMO foods. One of the largest animal studies done so far on Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready GMO corn has shown it to be very toxic to lab rats over a two-year period. I’m not ready to start ingesting food that causes that level of disease in rats, regardless of what Monsanto tells the government to “generally recognize as safe.” 

This country has a history of taking a very long time to ban harmful products, and we still can purchase products with known carcinogens in them. I don’t want to wait for the government to protect me from harmful foods. For me, it comes down to this: I consider foods harmful until proven safe, NOT safe until proven harmful.

Even if someday they prove that GMO corn doesn’t hurt anyone or anything, I highly doubt that I will look back on my life and be upset I didn’t eat a bag of GMO corn chips or have a bowl of GMO cereal. I will, however, look back and be happy that I did everything I could for my own health.