The Gulf of Mexico—and the many people that care about and depend on it for their livelihoods — have taken a beating in recent years; major hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill continue to cause long term problems. Even as Gulf fisheries struggle to recover from the devastating impacts from these catastrophes, a new threat looms on the horizon, unbelievably from the very government agency tasked with protecting our U.S. marine resources.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the federal agency responsible for conserving and managing U.S. fisheries. It has been pushing for years to allow open water aquaculture – the farming of fin fish in ocean and Gulf waters – all around the U.S. Overwhelming public opposition has to date stopped all attempts by NMFS to push through a national law allowing ocean fish farms in U.S. waters. So the agency has turned to a much less public, legally questionable way to ram through regulations allowing fish farming – with the Gulf of Mexico as the first test site.
Last month, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils that act as advisory bodies to NMFS on all things fish and fishing, approved a plan to allow open ocean fish farming in the Gulf. The plan now goes to NMFS for final approval – which could come very soon – then it becomes law. Between five and twenty industrial fish farms will be permitted and could raise up to 64 million pounds of fish each year in the Gulf of Mexico.
To someone unfamiliar with the pitfalls of ocean fish farming, this may sound like a positive development. Seafood is a very popular menu item, and wild fish populations are struggling under pressures of pollution, algal blooms and consumer demand for fish. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, starting this year, the world will consume more farmed fish than wild fish. Aquaculture is increasingly necessary to feed a growing human population, so more fish farms must be a good thing, right?
Not when it comes to open ocean fish farming, unfortunately. As they currently operate, these facilities can be harmful to both marine ecosystems and local economies.
To understand the major problems associated with ocean fish farms, it’s important to picture one: thousands of fish trapped in massive cages, eating, excreting and growing. Fish feed, antibiotics and other chemicals can be regularly pumped into the pens, and the excess washed into the surrounding waters, causing a wide range of changes in the local ecosystem. Farmed fish frequently escape, thanks to inclement weather, predators causing damage to pens, or even human error or equipment failure. Escaped fish can spread disease and parasites to wild fish and out-compete them for food, habitat and mates. As a result, ocean fish farms can threaten the health of the same wild fish populations that supposedly would benefit from reduced fishing pressure thanks to increased availability of farmed fish.
Harm to wild fish and their habitat, of course, means economic harm to the fishermen too. In addition to perhaps a reduced abundance of wild fish thanks to pollution and other problems with ocean fish farms, local fishermen are also undercut by these aquaculture operations, which can sell their industrially produced fish at lower prices.
Fish farming and commercial fishing can coexist. Fish farms need to move out of ocean waters and move on land instead. Recirculating aquaculture (raising fish in tanks on land) and aquaponics (raising fish and plants together in the same closed-loop, land-based system) are two alternative, eco-friendly fish farming methods. By operating away from natural waters, recirculating fish farms prevent escapes, and waste can be collected and in many cases even reused. In addition, land-based farms can raise a wide variety of fish and therefore need not compete with fishermen catching popular local fish. The result is what everyone wants—more fresh, local fish—without massive environmental or economic harm.
The Gulf Council’s plan, by contrast, promotes a method of aquaculture that is harmful and outdated. And it ultimately undermines the Council’s own mission – to protect the health of wild fish stocks, for their continued sustainability and for the benefit of everyone who depends on them. The decision to allow open ocean aquaculture in the very fragile Gulf is a failure of that duty, and NMFS should not move forward with permitting open water fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico – or anywhere else.
Tell the National Marine Fisheries Service we don’t want ocean fish farms in our Gulf – or anywhere else!
New Orleans’ infamous label as the “Worst Food Desert in the U.S.” was superseded by a new – and much more flattering – claim to fame: home to important “food hubs”. Yesterday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary of Agriculture announced a new report about food hubs across the United States. It’s a way to support the local food movement, highlighting what works to get food from small farmers to a public increasingly wanting to eat food from their own area.
Food hubs are businesses or organizations that offer infrastructure, support and marketing to build regional food systems. The USDA’s new report highlights best practices in the 223 food hubs identified across the country, including in New Orleans! Hollygrove Market & Farm made the list. It is a popular site that is home to a community garden, aquaponic recirculating farm demonstration system (it grows plants with fish in an innovative soil-less system), community supported agriculture program and much more.
Bravo to the many new urban farms and farmers, food activists, community coalitions, educators and many others making a positive change in the way we grow and eat! Read more here.
It’s that time of year again – when good food advocates from all around the country gather in New York City for TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat. We come together to acknowledge that conversations about food are changing. Rising obesity rates, frequent scares about contaminated food and environmental degradation have made it abundantly clear that our reliance on industrial agriculture is unsustainable. The system is broken – and we know it.
We also know ways to fix this. Current concerns with our food culture are driving researchers, entrepreneurs and farmers alike to explore new ways to produce more food using less resources, be environmentally friendly and more versatile. Recirculating farms are making significant contributions to changing the way we eat, and are now being regularly recognized as a way to grow healthy fresh food more sustainably.
These farms reuse waste, constantly filter and recycle water and can run on alternative energy like solar, wind and geothermal power. They are entirely closed-loop and can be located almost anywhere, because they are versatile in shape and size and can be designed for indoors or outside, in hot or cold climates. The ability to grow vertically, or in almost any shape and their closed-loop, soil-less nature make them especially ideal for urban environments– where growing space may be small, oddly shaped, or paved over – or where soil is too contaminated for growing food.
It’s been an amazing year here at Recirculating Farms Coalition – with the beginning of our training programs for farmers, and planning for our new education, training and research center in New Orleans, LA. We get to talk about all our progress again at TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat.
Marianne Cufone, our Executive Director, was a speaker at the event last year, and is invited back this year to give an update on our work, and also introduce Dr. AnneMarie Colbin, the CEO and Founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts – where Marianne went to culinary school!
Watch Marianne talk about recirculating farms, our Coalition and more – Check out the free live webcast of TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat online today from 10:30am est to 5:45pm est. http://bit.ly/WJEFYg
While many people were occupied with end-of-year preparations and festivities, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was busy too – it released a favorable environmental assessment of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, a move that paves the way for the agency’s approval of the fish for human consumption. This will be the first time in U.S. history that a genetically modified animal can be sold as food in the U.S. for consumers, and it is bad news for those concerned about the potential environmental and human health effects of genetically modified foods – more FDA approvals of other GE animals are likely to follow.
The fish in question is the AquAdvantage salmon, developed by a company called AquaBounty Technologies. AquAdvantage salmon are Atlantic salmon whose eggs have been injected with genes from two other species of fish: ocean pout and Chinook salmon. The company claims that these genes cause the modified salmon to grow faster than their non-GE counterparts. If approved, AquAdvantage eggs will be produced at a plant in Canada, and then shipped to a facility in Panama, where the fish will be hatched, raised in tanks, collected, and processed, then shipped to the U.S. for sale.
The FDA’s environmental review centered on whether there is a risk that AquAdvantage salmon would escape or be released from their production facilities, causing harm to wild fish populations within the United States. Because the facilities are not in the United States, and GE salmon will be all female and they say, effectively sterile, the FDA concluded that the risk of harm to the U.S. is remote.
The many critics of the FDA’s assessment say that the review was not nearly comprehensive enough, that it ignored the risk that some of the fish may be fertile (and thus if any escape they may reproduce in the wild), and that the FDA has not properly considered potential health effects of eating GE fish.
Concerned that genetic alteration of fish might change its nutritional properties in harmful ways, the consumer advocacy groups Food & Water Watch, Consumers Union, and the Center for Food Safety have urged the FDA to conduct a more rigorous food safety review than is currently required. (GE technology is currently treated by the agency as a drug administered to animals rather than as an additive that might alter the properties of the food.) Consumers too are skeptical of GE technology—polls show the vast majority of U.S. consumers don’t want the FDA to approve GE salmon.
Even without food safety concerns, AquBounty’s GE salmon isn’t a requirement to increase domestic availability of seafood. Aquaponics – raising fish in tanks (similar to an aquarium) together with plants in one closed-loop recirculating system – can achieve fast growth rates for fish, making genetic modification to artificially enhance growth unnecessary. Essentially, these farms mimic a natural ecosystem, where plants and fish have a mutually beneficial relationship. And because these are entirely closed systems, they can grow a wide range of fish without concerns about escape – especially fish that local fishermen don’t catch and sell. So these farms actually ADD seafood to the local economy, rather than compete with local fishermen. Further, recirculating farms are energy, space and water efficient – and scalable – from the size of a desktop for demonstration or personal use to a larger facility for commercial farming. This means these farms can be located just about anywhere: rooftops, abandoned lots, unused buildings, even basements – in the very communities that will use the products. This cuts down on the need for shipping and refrigeration – and reduces use of fuel (and thus environmental impacts) and production costs too. These savings can be passed on to consumers – making good food more affordable and fresher. Why test GE technology on U.S. consumers when there are sustainable and more natural ways of achieving the benefits claimed from GE salmon?
Before the FDA makes its final decision on approval, it will collect and consider comments from the public on its preliminary finding of no significant environmental impact. To leave your comment, go to the online government regulations page and click on “Comment Now” in the upper right corner. The deadline is February 25. You can also read the assessment there in PDF form.
Help protect the waters, wildlife and people of the Gulf of Mexico and the rest of our oceans too!
The Gulf of Mexico has been battered by hurricanes, covered in oil and then sprayed above and below with chemicals in an effort to mask the terrible effects of the spill. Now, the Gulf faces another serious threat that can harm the rest of our ocean waters, marine wildlife and people too. Learn more here.
Years ago, the people that make management decisions about the Gulf of Mexico approved a plan that would allow development of giant floating fish farms in Gulf waters, despite that tens of thousands of people clearly voiced major opposition to it. (Learn why people are opposed to ocean fish farming here).
Soon after that decision, the federal government announced they would create a national policy to guide the building of ocean fish farms in U.S. waters. That policy was finalized last year over many objections. Now, the plan for allowing fish farms in the Gulf is up for renewal, so it matches the new federal policy – this means we have one last chance to stop this! Let the federal government know we have had enough damage in the Gulf!
And this is not only about the Gulf of Mexico – it is a back door way to promote ocean fish farming in all our oceans waters. (Learn about who wants ocean fish farming and why here). For years, proponents and the federal government have been pushing to pass national laws that would allow development of ocean fish farms all around the country – but Congress listened to the thousands and thousands of people like you who spoke out against this – and last time not even one supporter signed onto the bill that was introduced in Washington, DC, so of course it was never passed into law. (Read about disasters in ocean fish farming here). Now, allowing ocean fish farms through the fisheries management process is how proponents hope to make this happen – and the Gulf of Mexico is first in line for where these giant dirty fish farms may be. Let the federal government know we don’t want dirty fish farms in the Gulf of Mexico or off any of our coasts!
In August, we told you about an innovative new farming and food center we’ve been planning in collaboration with the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN). On National Food Day, we are thrilled to announce that we and NOFFN partnered with the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to build the food and farm center – now named Growing Local NOLA – on its grounds.
The site donated by the Convention Center is a 5.7 acre lot at the corner of Melpomene and Tchoupitoulas of which we’ll build on 2.5 acres. We love this central location because it will be easy for the greater NOLA community to access – buses and the streetcar stop nearby and it’s easy to walk and drive to as well.
Growing Local NOLA will be a major hub of local food activity in the city. There’s going to be something for everyone: a public garden, space for educational events and community gatherings, a composting center, teaching kitchen, and a working farm that provides fresh local produce and fish for local restaurants and the community. We are also planning a market and café in the not too distant future.
The center will showcase eco-friendly recirculating farming techniques such as hydroponics and aquaponics, as well as soil-based growing methods adapted to urban settings. The possibilities are endless, and we can’t wait to put shovels in the ground and get this new center built.
Learn more about Growing Local NOLA here, and stay tuned – we expect to announce the official groundbreaking within a few weeks. We’re another step closer to more affordable, healthy food in New Orleans!
This week is National Farmers’ Market Week, a time that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designated to raise awareness about farmers’ markets across the country. Farmers’ markets have exploded in popularity over the past few years, reflecting the growing number of people who want to know where their food comes from, and who want to contribute to the economic health of their communities by buying directly from local farmers. The USDA reported last week that there are now more than 7,800 registered farmers’ markets across the nation, a 9.6% increase over last year.
Here at the Recirculating Farms Coalition, we love our farmers and their markets. Farmers’ markets have many benefits for farmers, shoppers, and communities. We’ll list a few of our favorites below, and you can check out the Farmers Market Coalition for more.
- Farmers’ markets are a cost-effective way for small farms and family farms to reach shoppers.
- Farmers sell directly to shoppers, without distributors involved. As a result, produce is often cheaper than you can find it in the local grocery store, and farmers get to keep a greater portion of each food dollar.
- A greater portion of money spent at a farmers’ market (30% to 40%) stays in the local community, compared with money spent at a grocery store (just 15%).
- Shoppers get to talk with farmers or farm employees face to face. As a result, people learn about where their food comes from and how it was grown or raised.
- Many farmers who sell at farmers’ markets grow their food organically or through other environmentally friendly ways.
- Many local farmers sell rare and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that you can’t find easily at your local grocery store.
- Food grown locally, rather than shipped for hundreds or thousands of miles, is fresher, and often better tasting too.
- Shoppers at farmers’ markets spend time and money at neighboring businesses, which strengthens the local economy.
- Having a farmers’ market in your community may be good for your health: some research has found an association between proximity to a farmers’ market and lower body mass index (BMI).
- Farmers’ markets bring fresh, healthy foods to communities that may not have access to them otherwise.
- Many farmers’ markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as payment, making fresh, nutritious foods available to people at all income levels.
- Farmers’ markets are a social space — a gathering place for the community to meet and interact.
If you’ve never visited your local farmers’ market, or just haven’t been in a while, this is a great week to go — many markets are holding festivals, contests, and other special events in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week. Not sure where to find a farmers’ market? You can search for the one nearest you on the USDA website or at LocalHarvest.org. And to find recirculating farms near you – check out our interactive map here.
Agriculture has always been vulnerable to the elements. Crops depend on sunlight, nutrients, and water — and when they can’t get enough of these, they die. This summer’s serious drought reminds us about just how vulnerable our nation’s breadbasket is, and it should also serve as a wake-up call. We need to strengthen our domestic food production if we are to continue feeding ourselves in an increasingly erratic and extreme climate.
One way to make smart use of the water we do have is recirculating agriculture, which uses naturally cleaned and constantly recycled water in place of soil as the medium to grow food. There are several different types of recirculating farms: hydroponic farms grow plants, aquaculture farms raise fish; and aquaponic farms grow plants and raise fish together in the same system. Well-designed recirculating farms use much less water than soil-based farming, and of course, using less water makes a farm less vulnerable to drought.
Water shortages are not the only agricultural problem that recirculating farms can help to address. Factory farms in the United States are a major source of pollution. Chemical fertilizers and animal waste run off into streams and rivers, this may contribute to algal blooms that suck the oxygen out of water, creating dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive. There is no runoff with well-built recirculating farms; waste can be captured and reused – turned into fertilizer or energy instead of released into the environment. And many recirculating farms operate without any chemicals at all, particularly in aquaponic systems, where plant nutrients are provided by natural by-products from the fish.
Additionally, recirculating farms can be built virtually anywhere — outside, indoors, on paved lots or even rooftops. This versatility makes recirculating agriculture ideal for urban settings and means it can bring local fruits, vegetables, and herbs to neighborhoods that historically haven’t had much access to fresh, healthy foods.
We are not suggesting that recirculating agriculture will, or could, entirely replace soil-based agriculture. In fact, we strongly support and work with many organic and natural soil-based farms and farmers too. But, these unique water-based farms can be an important piece of a diverse food production system that can provide healthy, fresh food while protecting our environment — and do so even under unstable and extreme weather conditions. These are important considerations given current agricultural concerns – like the recent drought.