A Fishy Saga about Science and Knowing what to Eat (Part 2).

Triggered by guilt-induced schisms that I was getting something too good to be true, I dug deeper into the case of a delicious new fish available in grocery stores near you for an astonishingly low, low price.

Part 1 covered the controversy of whether basa was a good thing to consume or not. To find the answer, I needed credible sources of information about fish farming but I had no idea how to identify them so I turned to friends for help, friends who are experts in the area of fish biology.

My inside information lead me to Seachoice.org. They’re on the page two of the google search on basa 1? Who is Seachoice? Their ‘about me’ page suggests an independent organization but I’m not sure of their agenda because the write up is quite generic. The overview about basa, or Pangasius, concludes with a ‘some concerns’ rating. Further down is an avoid rating. So I don’t know who Seachoice is or which rating is the rating. I’m tempted not to spend any more time on their site, but someone I respect told me Seachoice is an authority, so I download Seachoice’s 70 page pdf2 about basa and read.

The first page gets a thumbs up as it reveals an independent person with relevant credentials wrote the report. And I learn more about what Seachoice is all about. The organization’s goal is to empower consumers to make choices about what they purchase. They focus on sustainable practices in fishing, with a sustainable goal of long term fish production not jeopardizing the ecosystem. Their recommendations are based on as much objective evidence as available.

As a food source, basa can be farmed efficiently. The environmental concern is the sludge waste from the ponds which has been found disposed of illegally. The other major concern comes from antibiotics and pesticides found in the fish. A small minority of basa shipments to Europe have been refused due to such contamination.

Basa gets an avoid rating (farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment, i.e sludge dumping), EXCEPT if the fish has an ASC, GAA or Naturland certification (whatever that is) and then basa is a good alternative (some concerns about how it is produced). These rating are obtained by an estimated 23% of the basa produced at the time of the report.

Well, at least that’s a goal. I can feast on basa if it has these certifications. I should look into these certifications. But I’m tired. Going to the grocery store shouldn’t be this hard. I’m tempted to do a few things:

  • go with my instincts that tell me if the basa tastes good, my body knows what’s right (but then, we humans do like to eat things that aren’t good for us, like donuts and chips).
  • make my life easy and chose talapia instead (but is talapia ok? – it’s another farmed, recent introduction to the NA market)
  • starve to death while doing research
  • eat fries.

But I devolve. This experience has highlighted to me the challenges of making sense of scientific information even when you try to. It’s hard to identify a credible source, and when you do find it, sometimes it doesn’t answer the question.

As I travelled the path to a truth about basa fish, I wondered what my objective was. I stepped onto the path because my instincts told me that getting something at an extremely good price has its price. It goes deeper than that. What do I value in my food? I know there are animals that die to produce the meat I enjoy. It’s almost impossible that our existence on this planet is without a footprint. There are 7 billion of us, we impact the environment. Sustainability means leaving the environment so future generations can survive; I have no idea what that means. If I look back, my foreparents built cities that I marvel at. They didn’t destroy, they enhanced. But they also changed the earth. We’re facing global climate change and can’t expect the expected.

We can’t solve all problems at once. At least I can’t. I have a much better idea of whether to buy basa at my local grocery store now. If I can find it with certification, I will buy it. But I might still buy it anyway. I could be supporting a local entrepreneur in Vietnam, who will adopt more sustainable farming practice when his or her business prospers.

Meanwhile, I need to get busy developing truth-finding tools for everyone to use when faced with a wall of discord about something that should be based on scientific evidence. Stay tuned.

1Who goes to the second page of a Google search? I’ve heard marketing folks say withering things about having your website turn up as the 11th+ hit on a google search. Are those of us on pages other than page 1 are clearly interested in something other than fiddling with the rules of search engines to get ourselves to the front of the line? Perhaps content, not promotion of content? Marketing is a good thing, most of the time. But I still look at pages two to four, at least, of a google search, because I know there’s gems buried in the glitter.

2http://www.seachoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/MBA_SeafoodWatch_Catfish_Vietnam_Report.pdf

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