Black Elephants, Black Swans, and Tomorrow’s Fish

Is it a bit much to say that we are in the midst of a Food Revolution? I suggest that depends on how you view the current conditions on your plate, in your family, in your community, in our nation. Much like the distinction between hearing and listening, what any of us see is related to what you are looking for: climate change observers and bell ringers line up on one side; climate change deniers line up on the other.

A ‘Black Elephant’ as was explained to Thomas Friedman from his New York Times report of the recent World Parks Congress, is “a cross between a ‘black swan’ (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and ‘the elephant in the room’ (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it)…”

Black Elephants exist in most any sector in which inertia, denial, and other fear-based drivers are stronger than the desire to take actions involving significant change. This nation currently has been willing treat aquaculture as if any fish farmer from any other nation will be a better choice for ecological practices, for labor practices, for food security than any of our domestic aquaculture operations. Today, at least 54 percent of all the fish eaten in the U.S. is farmed; and close to 90 percent of that is imported. The Black Elephant has to do with the loss of food security, food safety, balance of payments, and productive “green jobs” we are loosing because as a nation we have chosen to not encourage, educate, or invest in more innovative, more healthy and beneficial food growing systems.

A new generation of food entrepreneurs is looking to grow good food as a field of potential innovation. Yet the question I hold is whether this new generation, especially those considering aquaculture, is truly stepping up as innovators? The current dominant model for the volumes of imported farmed fish — again 90 percent of all the farmed fish we eat — is an industrial model that is continually fraught with food safety issues. Most of the nations producing farmed fish for export to us have been heavily dependent upon the use of pharmaceuticals and feed elements that are less than optimal for fish welfare, or environmental impacts. Much like the agribusiness models of extensive external inputs from petrochemical industries to pump up the production volumes even as they decrease the nutritional values of our seeds and foods, industrial aquaculture is a same old model in need of truly disruptive innovations.

Industrial models for turning our other animal forms of protein are being challenged in all sectors of the food marketplace. The same motivations for volume over quality, for the delivery of cheap over the care for animal welfare and ecological degradation; the same externalization of true costs that has brought us those colossal consequences of poor health, ruined ecosystems and destroyed cultures is just as possible in fish as they have proven to be for industrial hog farms or poultry plants, or CAFOS turning out questionable beef for quick burgers on every strip mall.

Can we in seafood take a look at the revolt against the products of industrial corporate agribusiness, and take different business stewardship models for the next desperately needed wave of U.S.-based aquaculture? Well what would that look like?

It would establish diversity as a key principle. It would take a model that focused on fish welfare, which means we’d look to nature’s ecosystems. Let us agree at least that the best models for how to grow fish have been established, the R+D has been done. The conditions that exist on the coastal waters of every landmass, and the freshwater conditions that exist in every native lake and river system have proven themselves as very effective in growing out fish. Fish farming can add a level of efficiency and maximize the survival of grow outs far better than the predatory challenges of natural systems. And, given the degraded status of our oceans and water table from industrial toxins, farming can offer a level of greater assurance if done well. So, domesticating fish for food is a viable and essential alternative.

Note, however, no mono-cropping exists in nature’s waterways. Nature’s ecologies support diverse life forms and encourage the wastes of one species to be utilized as food, as energy source, as context for healthy fertilizer for other species. That is what living systems do; they encourage regenerative and restorative conditions. Industrial mono-species systems tend to turn out targeted protein in formats that may be commercially efficient while being of deep concerns to both our ecological and personal health.

The Black Swan, aspects of this new food producer wave, (remember that is about unexpected small shifts that have enormous ramifications), is that we don’t just need more protein. Get out your NetFlix and view Food, Inc., or the more recent Fed Up films. We need a Food Revolution. There is, right now, a generation of young people who are looking at how they can best participate in revitalizing fisheries and producing good food that is accessible. As if suddenly, new growing systems, including dynamic food production in the midst of cities are just beginning to offer just that: new access to good food. In the middle of this nation there is also a growing hunger from young people interested in returning to growing food for people, not ethanol for cars, proving grounds for Monsanto seed serfdom, or feed for unhealthy corporate animal CAFO holding pens.

Investors wanting Slow Money/Food and investors seeking multiple revenue streams, look to integrated bio-systems for greater returns than single species assumptions of efficiencies from scale. Regions interested in jobs for young people and encouraging good food, note that aquaculture-centric models can be disruptive of the assumptions of commodity food production through more local, fresh, connected food chains. Young people not satisfied with being industrial cogs but are more excited about learning to grow with the bio-sophistication of natural cycles and learn from the rhythms of complex ecosystems to turn out multiple revenue streams with market options that build profit resilience and healthful benefits to your communities — your time is coming. Perhaps the Black Elephant is that your time is now.