Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Friday, 26 December 2014

More than fishy - The new frontiers of capitalism's commodification of oceanic ecosystems

The December issue of Monthly Review magazine has a very useful article on Capitalism and the commodification of salmon by Stefano B Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, about the invention and production of a genetically modified (GM) Atlantic Salmon, called AquAdvantage salmon. The authors expect it to be approved soon by the US Food and Drug Administrator (FDA) despite the level of protest against its potential dangers to humans and ecosystems from ecologists and scientists. If it is approved, it will be the first genetically modified meat sold for human consumption and will set a precedent for thousands of other GM animals to be developed.

The advantage to AquaBounty Technologies who developed the GM fish, is that it takes only 18 months to mature enough to be sold instead of the usual three years. This will obviously be a massive advantage to AquaBounty over its competitors and will probably make the company billions of dollars.

A good-looking fish: AquAdvantage Salmon from AquaBounty

Other advantages, the company says, are that AquAdvantage salmon will be raised in closed containers reducing waste problems and the risk of contaminating its surroundings. Presumably, AquaBounty's lack of the right water use and discharge permits in Panama, and unacceptably high levels of  coliform bacteria were just teething problems for which the Panamanian government recently fined the company the maximum allowable, $9,500. AquaBounty also argue that because AquAdvantage salmon grow so much more quickly than existing salmon it will take much less food to produce it.

This last argument seems to make sense and it matters because farmed fish eat vast quantities of other fish in their manufactured food. It is often claimed that the fish meal that they are fed is mostly waste fish, "bycatch" fish that cannot be legally landed as part of fishing quotas, as well as all the rubbish of bones, skin and unwanted parts cut off in fish factories leaving the neat fillets for bread crumbing. In reality, there isn't enough waste fish for the farmed-fish market, so vast quantities of small, ugly or currently unmarketable species are hoovered up, boiled and fed to farmed fish.

However, in 1865 an economist William Stanley Jevons noticed that the technological improvements increasing the efficiency of coal as an energy source for industry did not mean less coal was used. On the contrary, as coal became cheaper for industrialists to use, they used more of it—the Jevons paradox. There is no reason why a similar process will not apply equally to GM farmed salmon and the amount of fish meal it is fed, whatever the producers may assert. As the fish becomes cheaper to produce more of it will be produced and more fish meal will be required to feed it.

It is true that salmon was a luxury food that has become much more accessible to ordinary people by farming and it is often argued that GM foods are necessary to feed the world's expanding population. But as Marxist economist Utsa Patnaik demonstrated in Agriculture and Food in Crisis,1 globalisation and capitalism in crisis have immiserated hundreds of millions of people who can no longer afford chicken, pork or farmed salmon anyway. And, because it is farmed for profit and not human need, it destroys local environments in the short term and is part of a system undermining global ecosystems of which humans are a part. As Marxist Geographer David Harvey argues;
"Money prices attach to particular things and presuppose exchangeable entities with respect to which private property rights can be established or inferred. This means that we conceive of entities as if they can be taken out of any ecosystem of which they are part. We presume to value the fish, for example, independently of the water in which they swim. The money value of a whole ecosystem can be arrived at, according to this logic, only by adding up the sum of its parts, which are constructed in an atomistic relation to the whole....Indeed, pursuit of monetary valuations commits us to a thoroughly Cartesian-Newtonian-Lockeian and in some respects “anti-ecological” ontology2 of how the natural world is constituted".3
So what has this to do with Iceland where salmon is wild and grows in some of the cleanest water on earth? Indeed, Matís—the Icelandic government owned food and biotechnology research and development company accentuates that its farming of Icelandic Char, another salmonid species, is in clean water and is GM-free. Firstly, of course no country exists in a vacuum so Iceland is affected by rising levels of pollution in the sea around it and salmon are born in fresh water, migrate to the sea and return to fresh water to breed. But every country is affected by the way capital operates as a global system so that when cheap fish from say Canada appears, Icelandic companies will be forced to compete by adopting the same methods of genetic modification and factory farming, resort to the import controls hated by the currant Icelandic government, rely on a very small super-luxury market or face bankruptcy. So as long as capitalism exists the drive for profit will not just warp our view of the world it will destroy ecosystems and our very means of survival.

1 Agriculture and Food in Crisis, Fred Magdoff & Brian Tokar eds, Monthly Review Press 2010
2 Study of the nature of being 
3 Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, David Harvey, Wiley 1996