Tuesday, February 19, 2008

There's A Reason They're So Damned Big

The giant Tiger Prawn. You can find these succulent monsters just about anywhere today but you should think twice before you give into temptation and cart home a bagful.

You need to think about the environmental, social and health issues associated with these supposed delicacies. These creatures didn't get that big all on their own. Think fishmeal diets and powerful antibiotics. Think growth hormones.

Most Tiger Prawns sold in North America come from Asia or South America. They're a farmed or, more properly, "pharmed" product. That's because they're raised, actually grown, in shallow ponds.

The object is to get them to grow large, fast. Now, as you might suspect, that means careful control of their diet. That usually means fish pellets. That sort of feeding produces two problems - pellets that don't get eaten and prawn poop. As waste levels build the ponds can become disease-ridden. To avoid losing the crop, antibiotics are commonly used.

When bigger is better, food alone isn't always enough. Some producers spice up the critters' diet with growth hormones. Between the antibiotics and hormones what ends up on your plate could well be a "pharmed" product. That's the health issue but there's more, much more.

Prawn farming has been shown to be environmentally devastating. In many places, mangrove forests are cleared to make way for prawn pools. Coral reefs and seabed grasses depend on the mangroves and so do local fishermen. It's not at all uncommon for fish stocks to collapse in areas of intensive prawn pharming. Fish stocks are further depleted in the production of fish pellets and fish oil to feed the carniverous prawn crop.

Then there's the waste water which is often pumped into canals, rivers and coastal waters polluting them with pesticides, antibiotics and disinfectants. In some places groundwater contamination leaves the locals without safe drinking water.

Isn't this just the price of bringing prosperity to the poverty-stricken? No. A Vietnamese study found that half of the country's prawn farms lost heavily. Of those that made money, 80% were outsiders.

The World Bank once lavished money on prawn farming operations. In Indonesia 70% of these wound up abandoned. Half of Thailand's shrimp ponds lie unused. Once abandoned, the salination of the mud means they can't be reclaimed for rice growing. In some countries, big industrial producers steadily move inland clearing forests to make way for shrimp ponds.

Finally there's the constant problem of the antibiotics. Two products pop up from time to time - nitrofurans and chloramphenicol, a known carcinogen. When either of these is detected by Western inspectors an import ban generally follows. Other products are, however, permissible. The problem seems to be that poor farmers use whatever they can afford to keep their prawns alive until they're big enough to market. In a money-losing business that's sometimes bad news for consumers.

You get what you pay for.

An article in today's Environmental News Network reports on a study conducted by Swedish human geographer Daniel A. Bergquist. He found that the market price of Tiger Prawns is horribly depressed and would have to be five times higher than today's prices to allow proper environmental protection and a fair wage for the industry's workers.

As you may have guessed, I don't eat Tiger Prawns but, then again, I can get my fill of delicious, wild BC sidestripe shrimp or spot prawns less than a mile down the road. That doesn't mean I haven't been tempted when I see a line of those big monsters laid out on a bed of ice in the grocery store. That's where I find the Tiger Prawns but that's also where I find a curious disconnect. Sometimes I ask where they're from and, invariably, no one knows. Are they from Bangladesh or Equador or Vietnam or China? Nobody ever seems to know. That's why I don't even bother asking whether what's laying on that bed of ice has been tested for hormones and antibiotics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, I have found that the people at Thriftys will tell you exactly where the fish they have on display comes from. One point for them. Cheers