Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Farm Raised Tilapia are a Poor Substitute for Wild Caught Fish

Global harvest of tilapia species in million metric tons
as reported by the FAO, 1950–2009
Long gone is the standard of going out back to collect eggs from the henhouse, out to the garden for vegetables, and down to the water for fresh fish. The changes in our eating habits are a direct result of the changes in our lifestyles. Many people will go their whole lives without having their hand in the production of what ends up on the table. That disconnect is partially why first grade children have more difficulty identifying a tomato than ketchup. The introduction of pesticides, fertilizer and monoculture have altered farming practices. The introduction of antibiotics has allowed for livestock to survive in crowded and unsanitary conditions, replacing free-range grazing as the status quo of food production. As we seek out healthier options in a society where convenience and affordability take priority over hunting and gathering, some of the options can be deceptive.

When most of us think of factory-farmed animals, fish is not the first mental image that appears in our heads. However, pigs, chickens and cows are not the only crowded domestic creatures being raised in cages. Fish are commonly viewed as a healthier option because of high protein and low fat content in addition to fish oil high omega-3 fatty acids. However, much in the similar way that grass-fed beef is usually more lean, wild caught fish contain more nutritional value due to a high-quality diet. Fish that are fed cheap corn or soy pellets lack the same foundation at the bottom of the food web that creates the vitamin-rich filet at the top of the food chain when it reaches our plates. Tilapia, the most popular farm-raised fish on the market, is so widely available that wild-caught Tilapia is extremely rare. Research from Wake Forest University has revealed that not only does farm-raised Tilapia lack the same levels of the desirable omega-3 fatty acids, but it also contains levels of detrimental omega-6 fatty acids exceeding that of doughnuts, ground beef and bacon. The end result is an exaggerated inflammatory response that could put those with heart disease, asthma, arthritis, other allergic and auto-immune diseases at risk by damaging blood vessels, the heart, lungs, joints, skin and the digestive tract. Health professionals offering nutritional advice to consume more fish in order to combat some of these health issues has the potential to become a serious issue if low-income patients reach for Tilapia as a cheaper alternative to something like wild caught salmon.

Tilapia are hardy fish that require little space and a very inexpensive vegetarian diet that does not retain the same levels of mercury as other fish. Lakeway Tilapia farms claims that "American farm-raised fish like Tilapia, are kept in very controlled conditions, and fed a nutritionally complete diet." Conversely, in addition to being commonly given GMO feed, tilapia are often fed chicken manure, duck and pig waste, as well as feces collected from the waste-water of other farmed fish like hybrid striped bass. This practice was highlighted by Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel's show "Dirty Jobs." The unsavory conditions in which Tilapia are typically raised on an industrial scale require the use of antibiotics to combat diseases. While Tilapia, otherwise known as the "Nile Perch" are commonly fed low quality foods, there are some smaller aquaculture operations that have found alternative solutions. One particular farm in Maine is feeding their fish organic pellet feed as well as duckweed grown in a greenhouse. However, the labeling of fish as "organic" has become a heated debate in regards to the comparison of nutritional value of wild caught fish. Wild caught carnivorous fish feed on other smaller baitfish, and as mentioned in The New York Times, "The issue comes down largely to what a fish eats, and whether the fish can be fed an organic diet."

Nutritional value of wild caught vs. farmed salmon correlates the increased levels of omega-6 fatty acids, in spite of the fact that a common selling point is that the farm raised fish have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The trade-off for the insignificant increase of omega 3 vs. nearly four to five times the amount of omega-6, twice the calories from fat and three to four times the saturated fat makes wild-caught the obviously more nutritious option, not to mention that it is higher in minerals like potassium, zinc and iron.

Along with diet, there are concerns about contaminants that have been found in farm-raised fish. Polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, pesticides and toxic chemicals found in pvc like dibutylin are among the list of contaminants found in "very controlled conditions." While fish farms claim that their systems reduce the number of environmental pollutants, the systems in which the fish are being raised are deliberately contaminated with these toxins as part of the controlled environment. This is true not only for Tilapia, but salmon, mussels, shrimp and virtually all aquaculture farming.

Beyond the science, the ethics of factory farming have long been criticized. Outdoor enthusiasts who are fortunate enough to know the health benefits of venison vs. beef and boar vs. pork also know that there is a connection to the food web that exists from wild-harvesting. If the age-old saying of "you are what you eat" is true, then wouldn't it be more appealing to be free than imprisoned? A free-range environment of our food sources allows for them to move about, burn fat and consume a diverse, truly complete diet. Taking a life to nourish your own is something that most humans seem to have forgotten while filling their carts at the grocery store with the flesh of other creatures. I would encourage anyone reaching for Tilapia to reach for a fishing pole instead. There is value to considering the full life of what we consume if we are to live to the fullest ourselves.

This piece was published by The Good Men Project on 10/12/2014

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