• Tue, May 3 2011

Tilapia’s Dirty Secrets Prove That More of Us Should Just Be Vegan

Osama bin Laden stole the New York Times front page yesterday, but the story that was originally slated to splash onto top news was about tilapia, a fish so popular and versatile that it’s overtaken tuna as “chicken of the sea.” In recent years, it’s popped up on menus and fish counters everywhere but, like most fish that doesn’t come in a can, most of us are unaware of where it comes from or how it gets to our plate. What’s more, most of us don’t realize that the tasty fish is far from nutritious. But what “Another Side of Tilapia, the Perfect Factory Fish” really proves to me is that, instead of seeking out the best kind of animal to provide our omega-3 and protein, more of us should just consider going vegan.

I realize this isn’t a popular view (which is probably why the NYT article’s muddled conclusion ended with a quote that “there’s no tilapia equivalent of free-range chicken”), but hear me out: The article rattles off the pros and (mostly) cons of tilapia. The fish is known for having a neutral, not fishy, taste, and it’s easy to put into mass production; the fish feed on pellets made of corn and grain similar to chicken feed, and quickly fatten up to become a just-tasty-enough filet. That’s great for farmers and people who like to eat fish that’s not too fishy, but like so many other delicious, cheap animal products, there are significant downsides, too. First of all, they’re one of the fish lowest in omega-3 fatty acids which, aside from proteins, are the biggest nutritional benefit of eating fish. And while they’re easy and cheap to produce, they also tend to crowd out other species, changing the ecosystems in lakes where they’ve been imported for farming.

The problems get more complicated, but the details about their cages and poor-quality feed sound just like a segment of Food, Inc. — the moral of the story being: Factory farming is bad. Whether it’s used to churn out fish, chicken, or beef, factory farming produces low-quality food and does bad things to the environment. And it’s done to sate our picky palettes at a budget-friendly cost. While free-range chicken and grass-fed beef offer more humane, environmentally-friendly options, by and large, they don’t solve the problem of overwhelming customer demands for cheap meat. And developing clearer standards for factory-farmed fish might help steer well-meaning customers who can afford expensive fish in the right direction, I’m guessing it won’t do much to revolutionize the production of the cheap tilapia filets, either.

So do we all have to give up meat, dairy, and fish all the time? I don’t think so, and personally, I haven’t. But my diet is becoming increasingly vegan and vegetarian, with a few exceptions here and there. It may not be the perfect solution for my appetite or the environment, but I think the more we reach a middle ground — somewhere between our fish taco cravings and our desire make the most eco-friendly choices we can — we could slowly, collectively, start to change all of the nasty problems with supply by altering our demands.

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  • K

    From the oh-so-reliable source of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, I was under the impression that a significant portion of farm raised tilapia ate the waste of other fish. Isn’t that reason enough not to eat them?