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Aquaculture Forum: Benefits of farmed fish outweigh any risks

K. Dun Gifford
By K. Dun Gifford
February 01, 2006

Presentations and debates at the international Seafood and Health Conference in Washington, D.C. in December brought clear focus to very important and controversial aquaculture matters.

A principal issue was the appropriate meaning of the word “health” in the conference title. How should we balance concerns for human health against concerns for ocean health? Is human health more important than ocean health? Should the two have equal weight? Do the answers change if we emphasize the short-term versus the long-term?

The presentations swung back and forth, with heated exchanges among presenters and the audience. Seafood-industry proponents were upset at environmental groups for criticizing farmed seafood as unhealthy, while environmental groups were equally upset at seafood supporters for pointing out serious flaws in the NGO studies noting health hazards from farmed fish. 

Human-health issues and ocean-health issues need not conflict. They can coexist, and proponents of each can support the other’s goals. But the highly charged atmosphere of attack and counter-attack makes this difficult.

Based on the weight of evidence presented at the conference, we can borrow from the judicial system (which is all about resolving opposing views) and stipulate several areas of general agreement about farmed seafood:

1. Aquaculture is a more environmentally benign way to raise meat for human consumption than agriculture.

2. Farmed seafood is healthier for humans than meat from farmed land animals.

3. The nutrients in seafood, both wild and farmed, are critical for brain health — neonatal, natal and adult.

This third point, that eating farmed seafood promotes human health, should be emphasized. It is clear from anthropologists who study the evolution of the human race that seafood is beneficial to human health. It is clear from research conducted by scientists who study the development and life-long maintenance of the human brain. It is clear from nutrition scientists who study the role of fish oils in heart health. It is clear from scientists who study aging and from physicians who study child development.

In other words, when the pros and cons of farmed seafood are weighed, the credible evidence falls heavily on the side of the positive.

Large, wealthy and media-savvy environmental groups operate coordinated, well-funded public-relations campaigns to promote “ocean-friendly” seafood.

These PR campaigns attack aquaculture, particularly farmed salmon,  claiming that the fish contain unhealthy levels of PCBs and mercury. These groups rely on the print and broadcast media to publicize the scientific studies they have commissioned, which are dutifully reported as fact by most journalists.

When historians analyze these attacks on the healthfulness of farmed seafood, many journalists will be embarrassed for failing to exercise their traditional skepticism.

And, as is almost always the case with campaigns that attack one thing (health-promoting fish) to promote another (healthy oceans), it’s consumers who suffer. As the Seafood and Heath Conference made clear, eating seafood has been good for us for hundreds of thousands of years, and the weight of scientific evidence proves it still is.

K. Dun Gifford is founder and president of Oldways Preservation Trust, a Boston food think tank at www.oldwayspt.org 

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