book review: bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

After reading Four Fish and seeing The End of the Line, I’ve thought a lot about sustainability and seafood. While I enjoyed that book and the documentary, neither one of them comes close to the quality and persuasiveness of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Bottomfeeder was one of the most engaging non-fiction books I’ve read, with artful language and ingenious organization. Each chapter takes you somewhere in the world to illustrate how a problem in one area of the world is contributing to the larger problem of our seafood and ocean life literally vanishing. If you’re at all interested in sustainable seafood, this is the book to pick up. (I even found myself smirk laughing a few times, which to be honest, surprised me in a book about seafood.)

It is pretty much universally accepted by scientists that humans are driving seafood populations to extinction. Most predict that if current fishing practices continue, we will see the collapse of all of our edible sealife populations by 2050. Grescoe challenges the idea that has governed the use of the oceans for centuries – that ocean life is a bottomless resource and that humans are entitled to anything and everything they want from within its waters. This mentality is what’s driving us toward future generations not knowing that many species of seafood even existed. The oceans are commons, and too much freedom is an issue, as Grescoe quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin:

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” (p.10)

The book is divided by regions and their seafood of choice – from monkfish on the plates of elite high-end restaurants in New York City to shrimp in India, bluefin tuna in Japan and the cod of England’s fish and chip shops and more. Throughout the book, Grescoe illuminates the issues that threaten that seafood population, but not in a heavy-handed way that makes sweeping judgements. His research is meticulous, and he makes clear that often it’s not one single event or practice that contributes to a population’s decline or collapse, but a convergence of different things.

The book also covers the damage that overfishing has done on different levels. It’s not just the environment that is affected, but public health, the economy of traditional fishing communities and the ecosystem as a whole. Never before has eating lower on the food chain made more sense to me. And like encountering information about factory farming for the first time can make chicken nuggets hard to swallow, I’ll never look at imported shrimp or a piece of deep fried cod the same way again. There are just no compelling reasons besides convenience and cost to eat seafood that is taken from overfished, endangered populations. If we want future generations to enjoy eating from the sea, the time to start practicing restraint is now.

I often have complaints about books like this telling you a lot about the problem, but not offering practical solutions. Many times you’re convinced that you should care, but you aren’t given ways to do anything about it. This book is clearly the opposite. I finally feel equipped with enough tools to really implement better choices in my own consumption of seafood. An extensive appendix gives resources like websites for the most up to date information (this book is now 6 years old), general principles to follow when buying seafood, questions to ask your fishmonger or restaurant staff, descriptions of the best and worst fishing methods, and lists of seafood in three categories for eating (No, never. Depends, sometimes. Yes, always.). I want to buy a copy of this book just for the appendix alone. (I’m reluctant to have to return it to the library!)

Armed with this book as a resource and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I feel confident about being able to make better seafood choices. We even stood in front of the seafood section at Costco this weekend, checking to see if any of the fresh offerings were ones we could buy without a guilty conscience. I want my choices to be healthy and sustainable – for both the ocean and human communities that fishing supports. 


movie review: tapped

It’s really easy in the world of sustainable agriculture and food advocacy to forget about water. Water is an even more basic human need than food – we can go longer without food than water. Only 1% of the earth’s water is drinkable, and there are increasing concerns about access to clean water worldwide. (See last week’s post about the UNICEF Tap Project.) 

Tapped is a documentary that looks at how the bottled water industry affects our water supply and what we as consumers can do differently to help to preserve the integrity of our water supply. The film was made in 2007, so I’d venture to guess that some of the statistics have changed over the last 7 years, but much of what they discuss seems to still be true today.

While lakes and rivers are part of the public trust, groundwater often falls under state laws that grant “absolute domain” – which allows anyone with a permit to take and use the groundwater as they see fit. This has led in many states to the bottled water industry coming in, filing for a permit, and then pumping millions of gallons of water out of rural areas and into plastic bottles for resale. In effect, taking the resources of a community and then selling them for their own profit with no benefits back to the community whatsoever. The examples shown in the documentary were from Maine and Poland Springs, a subsidiary of Nestle, which is the largest bottled water company in the world. (Coke and Pepsi being next in line.) 

These communities often have companies pumping groundwater out of their land in the midst of horrible droughts, where their own sources dry up and people are placed on water restrictions. Efforts to fight companies doing that have been fruitless. There are no laws restricting what these companies can do to water supplies – they just show up and take it. Governments don’t want to fight these companies because they employee many people throughout the country, in not just the extraction process but the bottling process, etc. So they choose to avoid job consequences over environmental consequences and leave the community and the pubic hanging.

This film does a good job of not just blaming the companies, but blaming us as consumers for buying into the ridiculous marketing hype surrounding bottled water. So many ads claim that their water is pure or comes from mountain springs (ever notice how many mountain graphics or the name ‘springs’ are on bottled water labels?). None of the water comes from mountain springs and some companies have been forced to put words like ‘public water source’ on their bottles. 

Because what you’re getting in that bottle? It’s tap water. Tap water that’s basically less regulated and less tested for quality than what comes out of your home’s tap through your municipality (if you don’t have your own well). While municipalities have to test their water multiple times daily, bottled water companies do their own tests at will, and aren’t required to do any of them. So when you see a label on a bottle of water that says “pure” – it’s no more pure than tap water and not filtered.

Once it’s packaged and sold back to consumers, bottled water is 1900 times more expensive than the same amount of tap water. And it creates an inordinate amount of waste, since we as a nation are not good recyclers. (At least in 2007 we weren’t!) We think of plastic bottles as disposable – that’s what makes them so convenient. But they end up in the ocean gyres of garbage or in landfills, leeching plastic chemicals. The film goes into details about the pollution issues of plastic bottles and how they threaten marine life and ecosystems, as well as how the manufacture of the plastic bottles in the first place affects the people who live near the refineries, with many medical issues. (The film also was created before the public decided it didn’t want BPA in its plastic anymore, hence the plethora of BPA-free plastic products out there now.)

The film makes a pretty compelling argument for why if you’re environmentally conscious at all, you should be drinking tap water out of reusable bottles. (They encourage buying a water filter system of some kind – whether it’s on the tap or a pitcher, etc.) It also is beneficial for its explanation of what kind of water is actually in these bottles and how it’s no different than tap – I’m not a fan of hype and health washing in marketing, so it’s nice to have confirmed that the water coming out of my water filter at home is probably more pure than anything I could buy in a plastic bottle. 

I realized while watching the film that I already made this switch awhile ago. I use a Camelbak bottle that I love at work and at home – and I take it with me on the go to people’s houses and on vacations, etc. I have found many places that have water bottle fill stations that don’t cost anything. So while I do buy bottled water from time to time, it’s not nearly as frequent. I have no idea when the last time was that I bought a case of bottles. I’d like to keep it that way.


putting down the smart phone with the UNICEF tap project

I think most people who are smart phone users could argue that they have made our lives easier in many ways. I love having a grocery list that can sync up with my husband so we always know what we need at any given time. Same goes for a synced calendar. I like having a camera on the fly and having the ability to communicate with people in many different methods. GPS comes in handy constantly.

But there are things I do on my phone that are meaningless, and sometimes I find myself doing them like a robot in a trance. I’m looking at you, mah jong games. I will sometimes even split my focus, playing a game or reading an article while also watching TV. Or worst of all, talking to someone in person while checking Instagram.

So when I came across this program from UNICEF called the Tap Project which donates clean drinking water to children in exchange for 10 minutes without touching your phone, I was intrigued. Check out this quick video below.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund, and they work in many nations to provide access to clean drinking water and sanitation. We take for granted in this country that we have clean water – the most basic need that we have. I fill my water bottle at work and home countless times every day – it’s the primary beverage I drink. I take a shower with clean water every morning and wash dishes and clothes with clean water without thinking about it. 

In the last 24 years, UNICEF and its partners have helped 2 billion people get access to clean water. And their work continues.

Visit on your smart phone, put your phone down somewhere steady, and press the button to begin. (You can’t do this if you keep your phone in your pocket or purse. Wait until you have a place to set it down.)

After 10 minutes, you’ve given a child a day’s worth of clean drinking water. While I did mine, a few facts popped up on the screen before it went dark and one of those were that 4 people were going without their phones at the same time in Pennsylvania. 4 people? That’s pathetic. We can do better than that.

The next time you pick up your phone, think about how blessed you are to even have a phone to use. Think about how there are millions of people in the world today who don’t even know what a smart phone is because they are too busy trying to get clean water to drink. 

corporate involvement with kids: how much is too much?

Two recent news stories have highlighted the issue of corporate involvement with children on environmental and nutritional subjects. These incidents included advertising as well as education, and I think they illustrate clearly the importance of corporate responsibility – something we clearly lack.

In Ohio, the oil and gas industry under the auspices of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program created a program sponsored by Radio Disney called “Rocking in Ohio” to teach kids ostensibly about the importance of oil and gas. (I say ‘auspices’ because that group is funded by only oil and gas industry companies.) The group’s spokesperson was quoted as saying that “our country can’t survive without oil and gas” and that “kids are the best way to spread the message.”

I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not important to teach science to kids – for them to understand what oil and gas are, how they are extracted, and what impacts they have on the economy and environment – both positive and negative. Science is awesome. And to be fair, the program did not educate children specifically about fracking, which is the most controversial issue in the oil and gas industry today (particularly in Ohio, where this program was based.) But is the best way to teach them to give an industry front group center stage and allow that presentation to be sponsored by Radio Disney? Why do children’s educational programs need to be “sponsored” at all? It’s a serious crisis if this nation needs to rely on corporate OR activist interests to educate its children. We need to give them facts and allow them to use their developing reasoning and analytical skills to draw conclusions. You know, like a scientist would.

Even more disturbing is the second of the two recent stories – Gatorade’s award-winning video game promotion in which water is made out to make your athletic performance suffer. Just the idea is even absurd – because anyone who has done anything remotely athletic in his/her life knows that water is essential to athletic performance. But Gatorade (owned by Pepsi Co.) specifically requested that ad agency OMD create a game for them to reinforce the message that Gatorade is superior to water. OMD specifically said that the goal was to convince kids that “water is the enemy of performance.”

In the game, Usain Bolt (the Olympic champion sprinter) runs through a course where kids try to collect Gatorade, which makes him run faster, and avoid water, which slows him down. Ok, really?

Even as a runner, I am not a fan of Gatorade for a multitude of reasons (read my post on it here). But the biggest issue is that there are few kids who are active enough that they even need to fuel with Gatorade or electrolyte replacements instead of water. Only kids who are heavily involved in sports and vigorous athletic activity even need to consider electrolyte replacement. For kids who just go to gym class? Water is fine. They don’t need the added sugar, and it’s flat out LYING to tell them that Gatorade improves athletic performance. What they should be doing is encouraging kids to get active.

Advertising to kids is a slippery slope, since their reasoning skills are still developing and their ability to discern between reality and advertisements is spotty, at best. (I’ve talked about this before too.) Putting a famous athlete on a Gatorade ad makes kids think they should drink it too – but the likelihood of a kid working out like a pro athlete? Slim to none. Even though Pepsi Co. owns its own bottled water brand – Aquafina – they push Gatorade for athletic performance. Aquafina is supposedly even a partner with the First Lady’s Drink Up campaign, to try to get kids to drink more water. It’s ludicrous to even try to claim corporate responsibility for children’s health and then turn around and tell them water is the enemy of athletic performance.

These two examples show how even programs with seemingly good intentions or benefits can have profit-driven corporate interests behind them. It’s important to understand where the messaging you are hearing is coming from and to discern facts from advertisements.