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On Fish and CSAs


A couple of interesting Grist pieces on food, both worth commenting so I’ll just combine them.

First, as we decimate the world’s large fish stocks in order to satisfy our unquenchable desire for fish, we often hear that eating smaller fish is an answer. But this is pretty unlikely in reality. First, Julia Whitty over at Mother Jones:

Sardines are considered a sustainable seafood, one of the few fish you can eat guilt-free, right? Well, not exactly. Forage fish like sardines and anchovies are the key players in huge but delicate food webs known as wasp-waist ecosystems. These are so complex and dynamic that it’s questionable whether we have the know-how to manage them well yet. And as we’ve learned the hard way from examples off California, Peru, Japan, and Namibia, wasp-waist ecosystems collapse catastrophically whenever the stresses of climate change intersect with the stresses of overfishing.

Twilight Greenaway expands upon this, noting that we aren’t eating that many sardines, but we are using them as an intricate part of our industrial food system in ways most of us never see.

You see, as many ocean conservationists and sustainable seafood experts point out, the problem isn’t that people are frying or grilling up too many sardines. The problem is the fish we’re not eating, but feeding to other, farmed fish (like tuna and salmon) and industrially farmed animals (fish oil makes pigs, chickens, and cows grow faster).

The author of a recent New York Times article about forage fish (another name for the small fish generally thought of as feed for other fish), called “Too Many Small Fish Are Caught, Report Says,” put it this way:

The consumer market for forage fish is relatively small; most of the fish are ground and processed for use as animal feed and nutritional supplements and, increasingly, as feed for the aquaculture industry, which now produces about half of all the fish and shellfish that people eat.

The simple reality is that we are the last generation of human beings to eat ocean-caught fish on a large scale. Between overfishing and the changing state of the oceans due to climate change, this is it. We are done with saltwater fish, outside of easily farmed but low-nutrition (and low-taste) species like tilapia that don’t eat other fish themselves. Today, we look at the wanton waste of wildlife in the late 19th century with disgust: the slaughter of the bison, killing birds to place them on hats, a widespread commercial wild meat market. I have few doubts that our descendants will feel the same about our wasteful ways with fish, the last wild meat we consume with abandon. I suspect that a century from now, our consumption of fish will look a lot like our consumption of deer or elk today. If you want to go out and fish for it, there might be a small catch limit for you. There might be a few expensive restaurants specializing in it. And that’s about it.

This scenario has devastating human consequences, including here in New England. I was at the farmers’ market yesterday. Being Rhode Island, fishing outfits can sell their goods at the market. I see them selling skate, cod, and hake, species that are increasingly threatened and I shake my head, not in disgust but just with sadness for the tragedy of the oceans and the tragedy of the fisher.

Speaking of farmers’ markets, this Elizabeth Henderson piece worrying about the purity of the CSA irritated me.

As the local food movement has gone from a trickle to a sweeping current, and sales of local farm products have grown, it seems that many community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers may have lost touch with the original intention behind the term. As a farmer, and one who’s researched and written about the history of CSAs in the U.S. and abroad, I find this trend deeply troubling. It seems many urban residents now see the CSA as just another form of “retail farming” rather than a model for civic agriculture, a site-specific form of solidarity, or associative economics that can transform relationships.


And while some commercialization may be inevitable when a product of counterculture enters the mainstream the way the CSA model has, the conversations I hear about how “inconvenient” it is for consumers are missing the point.

As I see it, reducing CSA to a mere food box subscription scheme would castrate the CSA model, taking away its power to create lasting relationships between the people who grow and eat food. As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini would say, CSAs allow citizens to become “co-producers” with their farmers, rather than passive consumers.

At their best, authentic CSAs are a win-win-win. Farmers get living wages and freedom from worry about profits and losses. Everyone weathers the tough times and benefits from the good times. Nothing goes to waste, and community investments help pay for land and equipment. Most of all, eaters get healthy food, good company, and the deep — if not always “convenient” — satisfaction that comes from playing an immediate role in transforming the food system.

Look, I agree with Henderson that the term “CSA” should mean something. Like “organic,” there are operators who want to capitalize on this trend without being true to its intent, thus making the word almost meaningless. Some dude putting a bunch of produce he bought at Safeway into boxes and then shipping it to people isn’t acceptable. At the same time, regardless of the hippie back-to-the-land intent behind CSAs, with the sharing of risk with the farmers and the commitment to do labor on the farms, most people interested in a CSA just want tasty produce. They aren’t going to go work on the farm. And while we might think it is good to get our hands dirty planting onions or what not, it’s just not feasible except for a small number of people. Getting back to the land has positive value in creating social and environmental awareness, not to mention knowledge of where your food comes from. But a lot of other things create positive values as well and I don’t think we should limit the freshest food to those who choose to pull weeds.

Food-based movements too often demand purity. Is it organic? Is it local? Do people really share the risk with the farmer? You can make great arguments that all of these things are great. But people do need convenient food. Go ahead and value the “pure” CSA model–there is room for that. But it’s also fine to want to support local farmers and eat good food while not spending valuable time involved in the growing of the food, unless we want to limit who can eat this food to a pure and special few.

And as far as using the word “castrate” goes, well, it’d be better to avoid such language all together.

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  • JMG

    Dear Mr. Loomis: The Gloucester, Ma. Fisherman’s Wives Association runs a fish CSA. You purchase 2 lbs. a week of whatever the catch of the day/week is. It’s usually pollock. But this could be the near future of fish economics if more limits are placed on New England catches, as is happening.

  • JoyfulA

    Isn’t driving 30 miles to do a little incompetent amateur farm labor not very green? (I bought a half share a decade or so ago, and there was no work commitment, except for all the cooking.)

  • Yet, fish remains very cheap here compared to other sources of protein. It is chicken that is skyrocketing in price. A piece of chicken now costs more than double what a comparably sized piece of fish does. Moreover the price of fish has remained stable while that of chicken has increased over 50% in the last six months. This does not suggest to me there is a global problem of decreasing fish. Rather that fish has gotten expensive in the US not the world. Fish is much more plentiful and cheaper here than any other animal protein and I suspect this trend will continue long after I am dead.

    • Hanspeter

      Which fish are you talking about? Tilapia and catfish (or at least what’s advertised as catfish) in the Northeast US is about the same price as basic beef or pork cuts (these are chain supermarket prices). Heavy white fishes (cod, haddock…) and farmed salmon comes in the “can’t eat every other day” level, and any other ‘standard’ fish starts getting expensive quickly. In the US, the top of the chain fish are expensive, and bottom of the chain farmed fish are not. The cost of beef, pork and chicken in the US also has a huge downwards pressure due to massive factory farming, but the price doesn’t take into account all the damage costs that is causing.

      J. Otto, you’re in Ghana, right? Seems like they’re using fisheries that Europe and the US haven’t found yet (probably a distance back to home market thing). Your fish (I’m presuming these are lighter fish, not tuna and the like) might be cheap now, but I doubt that will continue.

      • The main fish are all fresh water, mostly red fish, but also mud fish and tilapia. The primary source of fish is Lake Volta, the world’s largest artificial lake. The fish are farmed so I am not sure how they are going to deplete them.

    • You make a whole lot of assumptions based upon the fact that fish are presently cheap in Ghanan markets. The fact that fish are cheap right now might just mean that fish stocks are being very heavily fished and so there’s tons of fish, but 3-5 years from now, it may not be that way at all, not to mention 10-20. As to saying that you suspect fish will be cheap long after you are dead, you could just do some research into global fish stocks to suggest this is very unlikely.

      • Murc

        Remember, this is Otto. The only evidence he believes is that of his own eyes. If the data says something different from his own experiences, the data is wrong.

  • STH

    I’ve been a member of our local CSA for 4 years, and I’ve never been to the farm, so I guess that makes me a bad CSA member. The thing is, though, that just being a member connects you to nature and to farming whether you want it to or not. When we get a spring freeze here, it comes to mean more than I-should-wear-a-jacket-to-work; I drink my coffee in the morning and wonder how the seedlings at the farm survived the night. As the spring progresses, I enjoy my CSA asparagus and start thinking about the cherries and apricots and peas that we should start getting soon. My CSA has farm parties and you can volunteer to work there, but you don’t have to do all that stuff in order to see lots of benefits to being a member.

  • McWyrym

    I’m quite surprised Loomis felt compelled to fight such a weird straw man. From reading his reaction I assumed Elizabeth Henderson had demanded all CSAs require member participation or some such.

    In fact she says no such thing. She mentions a couple farms that allow members to do work on the farm in lieu of or in addition to paying a fee. She doesn’t suggest that’s the only appropriate model. She doesn’t even specifically advocate for that model; she merely mentions a couple of farms that adopt it.

  • joe from Lowell

    And while some commercialization may be inevitable when a product of counterculture enters the mainstream the way the CSA model has, the conversations I hear about how “inconvenient” it is for consumers are missing the point.

    Silly me, I though “the point” was to financially support local farms and reduce your food mileage, but I guess those little trifles are tangential to spreading a particular gospel.

    I thought I was getting vegetables, not a lifestyle.

    • You are getting whatever Ms. Henderson thinks you should get, and not one bit more.

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  • This is depressing. Had a salad nicoise for dinner today. Seems like it’s time to give that up.

    I think Otto has a point, tho — this is really not an argument about farmed freshwater fish. I don’t know how sustainable tilapia, catfish, etc. are — what are they fed? — but whatever environmental issues they raise are similar to poultry. There’s no question of overfishing. Too bad that they are so much less tasty…

    • With freshwater fish, it depends on what they eat. Tilapia I believe do not eat other fish. That is not to say that tilapia farms don’t cause other environmental problems. But tilapia or catfish farming are not a problem on this particular issue.

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