Flat Fish

OK, so tinned tuna can be OK, depending on the way it is caught (assuming it is Skipjack tuna) cod and haddock, not so sure, bit debatable; this time it depends not only on the method of catching – line caught only please, but on the place where it is caught.  Next on my list, purely because they are fish that are commonly sold and that I enjoy(ed) eating are sole and plaice, both, unfortunately, featuring on the Greenpeace red list.

So, for starters, these are both flat fish, and, as such, live along the sea bed.  This means that they are usually caught by beam trawling.  This is a particularly destructive form of fishing for numerous reasons.  Beam trawling involves dragging a large beam across the ocean floor behind which is pulled a large net.  Typically trawlers pull one net on each side of the boat.  Some also have ‘tickler chains’ in front which stir up the ocean floor so more creatures are caught up in the following net.  As you can imagine this is a pretty indiscriminate form of fishing and the bycatch including immature fish, crabs, coral etc is huge (up to 70% by weight).

However, there is an alternative, Danish Seine fishing, which is less damaging to the ocean floor and uses less fuel than beam trawling (hurrah).  This uses a conical shaped net to catch the fish; although there is some ocean floor damage and some bycatch it is much less than the alternatives.  Gillnets are also a better option, these catch the fish in the mesh of the net, obviously, the mesh has to be of the correct size so that small fish can swim through.

So, onto the sustainability of the fish themselves.  Plaice – current advice is to avoid fish from south west Ireland, west of Ireland, western channel and Celtic sea fisheries, whereas those of the  Irish sea are thought to be sustainable.  However, there is conflicting advice on North Sea stocks, Greenpeace stating that beam trawling in this area has caught too many small fish and stocks are unsustainable whereas the Marine Conservation Society currently states that North Sea stocks are ‘healthy and fished sustainably’ – no wonder eating fish causes such a moral dilemma!

Sole – advice at the moment is that, again, beam trawling has had a massive impact on stocks, and the North Sea and Irish Sea stocks are depleted, so best avoided.  Choose fish caught with more sustainable methods, avoid small fish and avoid fresh fish caught between April and June.  Both Greenpeace and the MCS claim that Celtic sea stocks are sustainable (if, like myself you are not wise in the ways of seas, the Celtic Sea is that part of the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Ireland and the south-west coast of England and Wales).

So, where to buy the holy fish grail?  At the moment I cannot fully answer that but hope to have a more in-depth review of all of the supermarkets in the coming months.  Having looked at the websites of the ‘better’ supermarkets, Waitrose and M&S, it appears that Waitrose use only Danish Seine methods and are no longer using smaller fish, although M&S are ‘leading the drive to reduce the use of … beam trawls’ (does that mean they do use them or not?) – it would appear that Waitrose are ahead of them there.

Waitrose fish is from the North East Atlantic, and M&S is from the North Sea, English Channel and around Iceland.  Are these sustainable fisheries – the packaging claims that they are, and the North East Atlantic and Iceland are not mentioned in good or bad terms on the MCS or Greenpeace websites, the English Channel and North Sea being more questionable.   A quick Google search reveals the North Atlantic area to include parts of the Atlantic west of Ireland, areas north east of Iceland and a pocket in the Norwegian Sea.

So, my conclusion, plaice and sole are in trouble, mainly due to unsustainable fishing methods, and, those caught around the British shoreline seem particularly at risk.  The information about flatfish from other areas is not so clear, but this may be because they are of less immediate concern.  As ever, it appears the fishing methods are crucial and any fish caught by beam trawling, and, I would go so far as to say any fishmonger who sells fish caught using beam trawlers, should be avoided.  I feel a little more at ease buying my lemon sole or plaice from Waitrose, but I will probably be doing so less often than previously (perhaps once a month), M&S still don’t get my vote as they seem to be behind Waitrose both on fishing methods and sustainable fisheries.

Pig Business

Last night, encouraged by a myriad of twitters and tweets, I tuned in to watch Tracy Worcester’s ‘Pig Business‘, an exposé of the pig industry.

For those of you who did not see it, Pig Business was a relatively objective film highlighting the activities of Smithfield, one of the US‘s largest suppliers of meat, as it started up operations in Poland, where it has bought up a number of farms and meat processors in the post communist era.

The film concentrated on two main themes; surprisingly, animal welfare did not seem to rank as highly as the Industry’s impact on human health, or the loss of a traditional way of life for Poland’s many small farmers.

Human health issues were linked to the practice of spraying the pig excrement onto nearby fields from a series of lagoons, a method that is now banned for new facilities in the US due to the ill health suffered by nearby residents; needless to say there were similar complaints in Poland.

Predictably, the number of independent farmers was also on the decline, as they cannot compete with the sheer scale of the operations and were, in the main, not prepared to house their livestock in similar intensive conditions. An interesting point made by an American campaigner, suggested that this competitive edge would be seriously eroded if the intensive producers had to pay the full environmental cost of their operations; a point coming into sharper focus in most industries today.

On the lack of sentimentality I would like to applaud the film makers as many people are unconcerned by animal welfare standards or the resulting quality of the intensively raised food. As Tracy stated in the film, food has started to become a commodity: people are only interested in the cheapest price, and this is a point on which I can become quite agitated if drawn into a debate.

Over the last few months, and particularly during the European elections, there has been a lot of dissatisfaction with eastern European immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs.

Why do people not equate their purchasing decisions, and the constant drive towards price reductions, with the loss of jobs in the UK? This film made it plain to me that it’s these same decisions that prevent the same immigrants from making a living at home, unemployment was very high: jobs in agriculture have plummeted to realise the efficiency gains needed to provide us with cheap food.

Why can we not accept that food should have a minimum cost, buy a little less, eat a little less, keep people in jobs, and enjoy better quality food. Paying more might make us think twice about throwing things away.

Capitalism is a double edged sword, and it is easy to blame everything on evil Corporations, but the truth less comforting: they have to sell what we as consumers will buy. If we change our behaviour we would surely all be winners? 

Would you separate your food waste?

A number of local councils have apparently been trialling separate food waste collections and these are being heralded as a success.  

According to the BBC’s website the 19 councils had around a 70% uptake of the scheme which diverted over 4000 tonnes of food waste from landfill (although they don’t say where to).

I recently filled in a questionnaire on the local council’s website which included a question about food waste collection.  I have mixed feelings about this, I already have a wormery which takes care of my food waste, so do not want another bin for this.  The council used to take some food waste (vegetable peelings and teabags in the main) in the compost bins, but they stopped this shortly after bringing in the bins for the compostable waste.  More than anything though, we have dramatically reduced our food waste by only buying what we are likely to eat (and have therefore reduced our weekly bills by about one third over the last 5 years) so don’t have much waste.  

Maybe, by seeing how much food they are wasting, then some people will reduce the amount they throw away.  According to WRAP 6.7 million tonnes, or, more topically at the moment, £10 billion of food are thrown away in the UK each year.  However, if people’s wallets are not reducing this food wastage, I am not sure that being confronted by the waste will have the desired effect.  What do you think?

Food Shopping Conundrum.

Our latest shopping trip to the venerable Waitrose brought more conundrums today.  We always try to buy as ethically as we can.  We look for locally produced, free range, organic products (some or all) with as little packaging as possible.

Dilemma number one – Waitrose had run out of 4 pint bottles of organic milk, do I buy 4 pints of ordinary milk (ethically not too bad, they are working in partnership with the Wildlife Trusts) or do I spend a lot more and buy 2 x 2 pints of organic milk with more packaging, but less harm to the environment.  I went for the organic milk, but this is mainly because it tastes better than the non-organic variety.

Dilemma number two – sausages.  We rarely buy any meat, but every now and again buy a packet of sausages, happy in the knowledge that we are buying free range outdoor reared pig.  However, listening to a recent Wiggly Wigglers podcast which reported from the Preston on Wye piggy day, all is not as simple as one would presume.  When I think of free range I assume the pigs will be wandering about a field, wallowing in mud (their way to keep cool as they have no sweat glands and to stop getting sunburnt).  But, no, they may still be penned, and apparently definitions vary, outdoor born pigs may still be classified as free range even if they are fattened indoors, the same goes for outdoor reared.  The RSPCA Freedom Food label guarantees even less; just access to light, freedom to turn round and access to clean drinking water.  Nothing about the outside, nothing about wallowing, they can be raised on an easy to clean concrete floor indoors or out.  For more information about this please see emmaspigs.co.uk.

More Rubbish News

There were more headline making facts coming from WRAP’s look at the rubbish we (that is a collective we as a nation, I am not accusing anyone, or admitting to any guilt myself) are throwing away.  A summary presented on the BBC news website includes the claim that we are throwing away 1.3 million unopened pots of yoghurt and yoghurt drink a day, which adds up to 484 million pots a year. Whilst I do admit that I have, on occasion, thrown away the occasional pot that has past its sell by date, this statistic means that each household throws away 22 pots a year, 2 a month. Not that many really, but who is throwing mine away? (I have now started buying the bigger pots and use the pot and its plastic lid as containers for soup and stock for the freezer and as miniature propagators for seeds.) This equates to nearly 10% of all yoghurt bought in the UK being thrown away without being opened.
WRAP commissioned a company to search through the rubbish of over 2000 households over a 5 week period and sort it into food and non-food and then record details of what was thrown away. This is part of the same work that discovered that we throw away 4 million apples a year (see my earlier post Interesting Articles). For those who think this is a problem with today’s throwaway generation, there was apparently no age differential between those who threw a lot of food away and those who were less wasteful. So, yes, you’ve guessed it, when you are in the supermarket, think about when you are going to eat those items that are making their way into your basket.

Food Prices

I just caught the end of a program on Channel 4 about the cost of food, which included a poll to which apparently 55% of respondents thought that the government should intervene to reduce food prices. Do I come from another planet? As far as I can tell food prices have been incredibly low for far too long, which is why we, as a nation, are so fat and unhealthy, it shouldn’t be possible to sell some of the food for the prices in the supermarket.

They were also showing a family how they could make lots of different meals from food they would have thrown away. Therein lies one of the problems. Whilst we are busy bemoaning the rising cost of food, we are also busy filling our bins with perfectly good food that we have just changed our minds about and can’t be bothered to eat now.

I must be one of the few people who hasn’t seen a big rise in their food bills, I have just gone through the bills from the last few months, and, if anything it has gone down. I think there are a number of possible reasons for this. Firstly, we only buy what we need and rarely throw anything away, things that are getting close to their use by date, or in some cases, have gone past it, are used up thus dictating the choice of dinner. Secondly, we try to buy local or at least British or EU produced food wherever possible – thus the increased cost of transportation has less of an effect. Thirdly, we don’t eat a lot of meat, this is one of the most energy intensive forms of food, and by reducing our intake, not only are we helping the planet, but we are protecting ourselves against rising energy costs. We also do not buy ready made meals, and try to find food with the least amount of packaging – reducing the impact of rising oil prices. Finally, wherever possible, we eat organic and fair trade food. This means no reliance on increasingly expensive fertilisers and a slightly higher margin so increased costs are either absorbed, or do not represent such a high percentage of the final price.

So, the answer to the rising prices, as with all things, is to eat less and waste less, but I don’t think that this will happen until people start having less to spend on other things. Let’s face it, none of us are going to starve, unlike a lot people in other parts of the world.

When food shopping becomes a hobby.

I am lucky enough to live in a town that has a Waitrose in which I can do my weekly grocery shopping. I know that most people think that you need to have unlimited funds in order to shop there, but we have found that we actually spend less there than in other supermarkets. Although some products are more expensive, it is so much more pleasant to shop there that I am willing to pay more.

My other half and I have increasingly found ourselves looking at the origin of the food that we buy and tryto select produce from the UK, or at worst, from parts of Europe (I think the food miles from the north of France are probably less than those for produce from the north of Scotland). There are obvious exceptions to this – for example I don’t know of anyone supplying UK grown bananas, but we always buy Fair Trade bananas from the Windward Islands.

There are people who think we are mad, but as I see it, not only does the food taste better when it is fresher, hasn’t been refrigerated or stored in a preservative gas, it is good for the environment and supports the British agricultural industry (or what is left of it). Why buy Mange Tout imported all the way from Africa when you can buy Pak Choi from England? Importing food may seem a cheaper alternative, but the jobs that are lost as more and more farms become uneconomical result in a bigger burden on the tax payer, not to mention the environmental consequences of numerous farms being sold for housing.

The plus side of this approach is that food shopping and subsequent cooking has become more of a hobby. Buying seasonal, British produce has resulted in the discovery of crops we had never tried before: – Jerusalem Artichokes (not sure about these), Cavolo Nero (delicious in pasta and high in iron), red cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli (we bought this today and haven’t tried it yet). In addition to this there is the fun of trying out different recipes with the seasonal ingredients.

I will be trying to go one better this summer and grow some of my own produce and will hopefully have more luck than last year which resulted in lots of courgettes (although I have since found some recipes to use these) and green tomato chutney (which I believe is better than most as there seemed to be a lot of blight about last year).

So, next time you are in the supermarket and pick up those South American berries, South African pears or African beans, think of the environment and the farmers and try something different and British instead.