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When Their Eyes Turn White, They're Ready--Updated!

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:13am

Ran into one of my local farmers yesterday when an extra CSA box became available (the CSA to which I belong doesn't start until May) and the thought of fresh kale, turnips, braising greens, eggs, and more had me over there in minutes. As the other box recipients and I leaned over the farmer's truck in the parking lot in the shadow of a mall, as if we were doing a drug deal, she asked us what we thought about her possible plans to farm tilapia in water holding tanks in her new hoop house. She shared the statistics--how fast fingerling tilapia (as if they are potatoes) grow, how many she can grow, how they would only be available "on the fin," which means on ice with head and tail and innards. How she would give a filleting class. How wouldn't that be great, and yes, the other two people nodded and prodded her on. But I wasn't quite with her. I think she identified my discomfort as merely not wanting to fillet the fish.

"It's easy," she said. "And then you just cook 'em. When their eyes are white, they're ready."

It nagged at me all day. Hundreds of tilapia in a tank in a hoop house, their whole short lives, their entire reason for being to simply end up on ice, to be cooked until their eyes turn white.

I talked about it at dinner, all those wonderful greens sauteed and the turnips baked with salt and pepper and some newly sprouted herbs from my garden, along with chicken legs from Gum Creek Farm.

And then it hit me. This is not the way fish live, or are supposed to live. They are not a crop. But why, then, do I eat tilapia from the supermarket--is it simply because farmed tilapia is on the "okay to eat" list from Oceans Alive and I've excused myself from any further thinking about it?

Wouldn't this farmer's tilapia be better than that, since I know the farmer and I know she would do whatever she can to be as environmentally sound as possible?

Or is there a bigger truth I have to face--that by eating local and knowing the source of my food, I now face some ethical decisions that I can no longer escape?

Is tilapia now off my list of things I feel comfortable eating? What about wild salmon? Are fish that have had a chance to express their "fishness" ethically okay to eat?

What about the chicken? The chicken ran around, scratched and ate the food of its choice, and died a humane death. Is there such a thing? Am I drifting toward vegetarianism?

What do you think about farmed fish? Help me with this.

UPDATE: March 12, 2007--What Nina Says

Okay, so I had to see what Nina Planck says on this topic. Nina Planck is the greenmarket guru who wrote the book, Real Food, which I read and loved and which basically aligns with my philosophy that if you eat real, whole food, grown the way nature intended, you're making the best decisions for your body. Now, I didn't find anything Nina said about the ethics involving eating animals, but here's what she says nutrition-wise (in reaction to what the ubiquitous Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Magazine recently):

There's one kind of 'meat' it's almost impossible to live without: fish. Pollan explains neatly how omega-6 and omega-3 fats work and where they come from. Essentially, you get omega-3 fats from fish and omega-6 fats from plants. The body needs both. But they must be in balance. A major cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in the US today is the excess of omega-6 fats from industrial grains and seeds suchs as corn, soy bean, safflower, and sunflower oils. So in addition to adding omega-3 fats to your diet, it's a good idea to limit omega-6 fats. I realize this is the very nutritionism Pollan decries, but it's difficult to discuss food without discussing its nutrients.

As it happens, I don't live by nutritionist thinking on a daily basis. I don't count calories, fat grams, or anything else in my diet. The easiest way to limit omega-6 fats is to avoid all the yellow industrial oils, such as corn and soy. Most are refined anyway. If you eat olive oil, you will get all the omega-6 fats you need.

Doesn't Pollan say you can get omega-3 fats from plants, too? Yes - in theory. But not the most important omega-3 fats, the so-called long-chain, polyunsatured fats DHA and EPA. Your brain must have these fats. (This is known as an 'absolute' not 'conditional' need.) They're found only in fish (and in small quantities in grass-fed meat, milk, and egg yolks). Hence one of the dangers of a vegetarian diet: omega-3 deficiency. In theory, your body can make DHA and EPA from other omega-3 fats found in walnuts and flax seed oil, but in metabolic terms, that conversion is what the biologists call 'costly and uncertain.' It is much, much wiser to eat fish. If mercury is a concern, remember these rules of thumb:

The smaller the fish, the better. Mercury, like other toxins, concentrates as it climbs the food chain. Sardines are better than shark or swordfish.
Herbivorous fish, for the same reason, have less mercury than carnivores because they don't eat other small fish containing mercury. That means tilapia, catfish, freshwater trout.
Quality fish oil capsules, or cod liver oil, are good ways to get omega-3 fats.

If you're pregnant, nursing, or at risk of heart disease, it's vitally important to eat fish. In my view, the risk of omega-3 deficiency is greater than that of mercury poisoning. (Do make sure any vaccines your kids get don't contain mercury (thimerosal) and consider having all your mercury-containing fillings removed.)
I eat wild Alaskan salmon, canned and frozen, which I love. I also take cod liver oil, which I don't. But it's a fabulous source of EPA and DHA, plus vitamins A and D. I do recommend it for pregnant and nursing women.

To find out more about Nina, go to
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