ColumnFrom tuna to turtles, some cultural food traditions create such egregious ethical and environmental consequences, they can never be justified.
When is a cultural tradition a legitimate reason to continue to consume something that’s environmentally problematic? When is it just a convenient excuse to keep eating whatever we want or to keep a lucrative trade going? The examples that follow may not answer that question, but they will certainly get you thinking about the issue.
A Big Beef
At a deli referendum last year, the discussion around the sustainability and history of Jewish food traditions centered on the giant pastrami sandwiches served at Jewish delis. Panelists like Michael Pollan reflected on the fact that what people think of as a long-standing food tradition is really a relatively new tradition borne out of post-war prosperity and abundance. The panel discussed the wisdom of serving and eating smaller sandwiches made from more responsibility raised beef less often. Such a practice would not only be better for the environment and our health but would be more in line with older Jewish food traditions that treated meat as a special occasion food.
California legislators are in the midst of considering AB 376, a bill that would ban the sale, possession, and trade of shark fins in the state. The opposition has spent millions to convince legislators and voters that banning the trade in shark fins would be racist. Shark fin soup is a traditional dish served at Chinese banquets, but it’s only relatively recently that a wide swath of middle class population has enjoyed the dish. The popularity of shark fins today is causing the decimation of the shark population. This is not only a tragedy in itself, but the practice of ripping the fins off of sharks and tossing the live sharks back in the water to die is cruel. Whether or not you care about sharks, as top predators, they are crucial to the health of the ocean ecosystem, and by extension, our survival.
Despite the fact that the Blue Fin tuna population has declined nearly 90% since the 1970s and is considered endangered by most ocean advocacy groups, if not the US Government, it still appears on the menus of most sushi bars. Why? Because it’s one of the traditional fish used in sushi, it’s delicious, and people will pay a lot of money for it. Is that enough reason to decimate an entire population of a majestic top ocean predator?
Some questions of food traditions vs. environmental conservation are a little more complicated. Sea turtle meat and eggs are important culinary traditions in many parts of Latin America. Most species are protected, but there are some indigenous communities who have the right to hunt turtles in their territory for their own consumption. In Costa Rica, residents who have few other income opportunities, are allowed to harvest a small proportion of sea turtle eggs to sell. Unfortunately, both of the above types of arrangements often lead to illegal poaching and high black market prices, which just feeds the problem.
Are there any situations in which cultural food traditions should trump environmental concerns?
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.