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An rud bhios na do bhroin, cha bhi e na do thiomhnadh
"That which you have wasted will not be there for future generations"

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Guest Column, June 2005

David Suzuki carries a global reputation as a geneticist, professor, lecturer, and environmental and civil rights activist. He is best known as the long-time moderator of the highly successful CBC TV science magazine programme, The Nature of Things which is broadcast in more than 40 nations. His series, A Planet for the Taking, averaged 1.8 million viewers per episode and earned him a United Nations Environment Program Medal in 1988.

Soul Food

Toxins, antibiotics, PCB's, disease. The words waft around farmed salmon like a bad smell - and health minded consumers are taking notice.

In fact, health considerations and concerns about toxicity are among the most cited reasons that consumers are turning away from farmed salmon.

Unfortunately, when the media and public become too mired in the discussion over which is better for our health, farmed or wild salmon, they are missing the point by a mile.

Yes, more toxins are found in farmed over wild salmon. More antibiotics, too. But let's forget about the personal health angle for a minute and put this debate in a broader context. Personal health is important, but this industry has the potential to affect the health of everyone on the planet - especially those in the developing world.

Let's start with the basic food chain. As we know, farmed salmon are carnivores and eat other fish. A lot of other fish.

The salmon farming industry buys these "feed fish" from the developing world, concentrates them into fish meal and fish oil for food pellets, and feeds them back to farmed salmon.

It takes two to four kilograms of fish like mackerel or anchovies from Chile or Peru, for example, to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon for the tables and barbecues of the industrialized world.

We rarely pause to think about the true implications of this.

Where is the discussion over who actually have the right to and need that protein more? The fish used to produce fish meal and fish oil are not being consumed by those who need them most. Local food-fish are slowly becoming too expensive for the people of Chile or Peru. Their natural protein sources are being depleted in order for us to have salmon on our tables.

This gross social inequity is rarely, if ever, a consideration. We should be asking - why is the health of Chileans and Peruvians any less important than "our" health?

The mathematics of global protein loss are quite simple. The more farmed salmon we eat, the bigger the salmon farming industry becomes, the more feed is required, and the more our oceans are depleted of other fish.

But this is rarely, if ever, discussed.

When did we become so disconnected from the realities of the food we eat?

Our collective denial goes far beyond farmed salmon. While most of us are fairly well-versed in good versus bad carbs, fat and calorie content, most of us have no idea about the true cost of our food choices.

A big part of this is our convenience-based culture.

Let's take a typical trip through our local fast-food drive-through window. When we pop in to buy a burger, for example, most of us don't think twice about it. We're in a hurry, we're hungry, we need fuel.

Never mind the factory farm which may have produced the beef in that burger - the water required to keep that cow alive, the waste produced on that farm - the potential of that burger to contain disease or antibiotics - the suffering of the cow and the fundamentally un-natural way in which that particular burger has made it into our car.

Never mind all that. We're in a hurry. We're hungry. We need fuel.

But what if we stopped, slowed down, and considered this: eating that burger may be the most intimate act we perform all day. It's going into our mouth, moving through our body, entering our bloodstream, feeding our brain and imagination, transforming itself into energy and becoming a part of us at the cellular level.

Eating is its own miracle - and we simply don't pause often enough to celebrate this.

The growth of the organics movement and the re-appearance of farmers markets in cities and towns around the world are an encouraging sign that consumers are ready to reconnect with what we eat.

Eating "seasonally" gets us back in touch with nature's rhythms. When we buy from local producers, we know exactly what we are getting. We're more in tune with our surrounding environment, and are supporting our local community. It's easy to be dazzled by tropical fruits or exotic seafood. But organically raised and locally produced products can make eating a far more satisfying and rewarding experience.

With seafood, and salmon in particular, we must tread especially carefully. We can't all eat wild seafood, all of the time. Not unlike a Christmas turkey or an Easter ham, we can enjoy the ocean's bounty in moderation - and truly savour and celebrate when a wild salmon makes it to our table.

Personal health and the health of our planet are inextricably connected. We should make the 'other' aspects of what we eat - including the global implications - just as important as their toxicity, their fat content or their relative health benefits. The true sustainability of our food sources for future generations is not considered often enough.

If "knowledge is the food of the soul," we have our work cut out for us. We could start by tuning in, slowing down, and being more critical about what it means to be "healthy." When we start to treat food with the reverence that it deserves, we will all be richer for it.

David Suzuki