Can a “feed the world” mantra justify trashing our marine environment?

"The suggestion that salmon farming is somehow justifiable in order to feed the world simply will not wash."

Andrew Graham-Stewart, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland

I have been cursing Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary in Scotland for the Rural Economy, of late. Of course, it is nothing personal. I will explain.

On November 6 I was watching – on Parliament TV – Ewing and his senior civil servants giving evidence before the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy Committee. Following close questioning about the salmon farming industry’s dismal environmental record, Ewing sought to justify the industry’s “serious problems” thus:  “If we have to feed twice as big a population in the world, we must, as no new farmland is going to be created any time soon, find a way of using the marine environment……to feed the planet.”

As soon as the Cabinet Secretary uttered the words “feed the planet”, the refrain from what is perhaps the most annoying and sanctimonious pop ditty in history entered my head. In 1984 the assorted stars of Band Aid raised millions towards famine relief in Ethiopia, a thoroughly creditable initiative, through sales of the single Do they know it’s Christmas? The words of the chorus, Feed the world, are repeated endlessly in shrill tones. Ever since its release, this song and its inane refrain have become a staple of the excruciating muzak that pollutes public spaces throughout December. This year, thanks to Fergus Ewing’s utterance, I have been struggling to expurge the inane Feed the world refrain from my consciousness since early November.

Of far greater import is the fact that farmed salmon is never going to be a sustainable answer to feeding the world. Growing farmed salmon is dependent on the extraction by foreign-flagged factory ships of vast amounts of other fish, mainly from the coastal seas off poor countries in West Africa and South America (depriving local communities of sustenance and the opportunity of making a sustainable living), and shipping the catch thousands of miles to be converted into fishmeal.

Farmed salmon is simply not an efficient use of fish protein. It requires a considerably greater weight of bait or other fish to produce a kilo of farmed salmon – and the oft-quoted and dubiously optimistic conversion ratios never take into account those farmed salmon that die, because of disease and parasites, before they are harvested; this mortality rate of salmon (for which in effect the feed has been entirely wasted) in Scotland is some 25%.

As I write, supermarket fresh salmon is retailing for around £15 per kilo, generally more than the price of cod or haddock and far more than the likes of mackerel or herring. In fact, salmon is often a luxury purchase; recently the Daily Mirror reported that one Tesco London store is “hiding smoked salmon following a string of thefts in the run-up to Christmas”. Farmed salmon is not cheap protein that is going to be a solution for world hunger. It is simply fatuous for any politician or indeed industry spin-doctor to suggest that is the case.

Hardly a week goes by without further damning evidence of what an environmental disaster open-cage salmon farming is. Scottish Ministers and industry spokespersons are increasingly desperate in their search for valid reasons to vindicate the trashing of our coastal marine environment and the catastrophic decline in those species that depend upon clean, chemical-free and parasite-free waters. The suggestion that salmon farming is somehow justifiable in order to feed the world simply will not wash.