Monbiot’s Lost the Plot

George Monbiot is one of my favorite authors and a key voice within the sustainability movement. He brings a very important critical perspective into the mainstream through his column in The Guardian and recent TV appearances that only a few years ago would have scarcely received any attention. But his recent article Stop eating fish. It’s the only way to save the life in our seas was so unbelievably off the mark that I felt compelled to write a response.

I’ll start with a brief overview of the article. Monbiot begins by citing the newest UN biodiversity report, which he interprets as claiming that fishing is the greatest cause of biodiversity loss in the seas. He also points out that the fishing industry in the UK and Holland is highly concentrated, summarizes a few of the major environmental impacts from fishing, and discusses some problems with current regulatory structures in the EU and around the globe. He concludes by stating that “there are almost no fish or shellfish we can safely eat,” citing two controversies regarding fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s most recognizable sustainable seafood ecolabel.

First, I would like to address individually a few of Monbiot’s more problematic claims. It is true that we need to better manage our oceans, but Monbiot has exaggerated the adverse effects of commercial fishing. I’m not sure how many noticed, but in the original text, he claimed that ‘74% of fisheries are overfished,’ a sentence that was redacted from the article with no mention of the correction by The Guardian. The actual number is 33%, and the UN FAO’s definition includes any fish stocks under 80% of BMSY, the biomass that produces what is called maximum sustainable yield, the maximum rate at which fish can be harvested without causing long-term depletion (in the US, a stock is defined as ‘overfished’ at 50% of BMSY, a more lax definition that is thought to better account for natural population cycles). In 2011, only 7% of stocks were depleted. While this is a very serious issue, it’s always important to get the facts straight as to not give any ammunition to our opponents. And it’s certainly nowhere near as dire of an issue as the destruction of the Amazon, for example. No species has ever become extinct through overfishing.

Furthermore, his criticisms of the Marine Stewardship Council–which sets the gold standard not just for sustainable seafood ecolabels, but for ecolabels of any type–are simply unfounded. It appears that he didn’t even read the two articles he linked that were supposed to prove that the MSC label “is no guarantee of sound practice,” much less actually look into the issues. In both the cases he cites, independent adjudicators (MSC allows for a period after the announcement of the results of an assessment in which members of the public can make objections to the scoring to be evaluated by an independent adjudicator) ruled in favor of the third-party auditors that had scored the fisheries in question as meeting the MSC’s rigorous Fisheries Standard.

In the case of the tuna fishery, shark finning there is illegal and fully prosecuted by the law. It was decided that refusing to certify a fishery just because illegal actions occurred there on rare occasions would be setting the bar too high and would preclude well-performing, sustainable fisheries from entering the program and bettering themselves as well as create “a perverse incentive for fisheries not to monitor the fishing activities” (from the Public Certification Report). It was also noted that shark mortality in the fishery has sharply declined in recent years. The score of 80 was upheld, which is far above the minimum score of 60 without which the fishery could not have been certified and is the score at which no further improvement is compulsory (in order to maintain certification, a fishery is required by MSC to close out all “conditions”–performance indicators scoring between 60 and 80–by reaching a score of at least 80 by the end of the certification period).

In the case of the scallop fishery, a score of 80 was also upheld by the independent adjudicator because the species in question are hardly effected by the fishery, the fishery has a very small footprint, the most sensitive areas either do not overlap with the fishery or have been closed, and the sand and gravel bottoms where most of the dredging occurs do not represent “less vulnerable or sensitive habitats” (in part because these areas are subject to much natural disturbance anyway through the tides, and life there has evolved accordingly). Furthermore, the fishery has management systems in place that protect sensitive seabed habitats and horse mussel and mearl beds (which were named in the objection), resulting in closures in recent years.

It is not simply that Monbiot has gotten the facts wrong, however. My primary critique of Monbiot is that he has demonstrated a lack of consideration for systems thinking: he has identified a problem (the environmental impacts from commercial fishing) and has come up with a solution (end commercial fishing by refusing to eat seafood) without considering the effects that this solution–either its successful implementation (essentially impossible) or, realistically, the likely results from any effort reaching far short of that goal–would have on any other system as a whole.

 

First, getting people to stop eating seafood is one thing, but has he considered what they would eat instead? (Monbiot’s defenders would tell us that he is in favor of a plant-based diet, but nowhere in the article is that mentioned.) The reality is that without seafood, people would likely turn to meat for their protein, which has much higher greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein than seafood (in the case of red meat, it’s several times higher) as well as a whole range of other environmental impacts. Sure, there will always be a few vegan warriors out there (and they are rapidly growing in number), but they will never comprise more than a small subset of the population. In order to defeat climate change, we must drastically reduce our red meat consumption, and, realistically, the best way to do so is to encourage people to eat sustainably-sourced white meat and, especially, seafood instead rather than demand they follow a diet as austere as veganism. Monbiot misses a golden opportunity to promote the former by clamoring for the latter through attacking such a viable alternative to red meat in what is, ultimately, an exercise in futility: any solution that relies on merely hoping that the vast majority of the population adopts some sort of significantly less enjoyable or convenient taste or lifestyle is bound to fail and cannot be taken seriously. Far more important is to consider what the actual effects of this failed attempt would be, to which I’ll turn later.

Even more dire would be the social impacts of Monbiot’s proposition. We live on a planet where 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger (with nearly five million children under the age of five dying of malnutrition-related causes annually). To suggest that we should immediately stop eating what constitutes 20% of the protein intake of 3.2 billion people–and what is also one of the healthiest–is utter madness. Does he expect them to eat cake instead? Now, I’m sure Monbiot’s defenders will argue that he wasn’t referring to the world’s poor when using the word “we,” but why didn’t he clarify that? What’s the point in engaging counterfactual debates about what he didn’t write but allegedly meant to? And if that was indeed the case, then Monbiot is displaying the very sort of ethnocentrism of which he is a critic. Furthermore, the first world’s fisheries tend to be much better managed, more sustainable, and less subject to IUU (illegal, unregulated, and unreported) fishing than the third world’s, so if all first world consumers were to stop eating seafood, it would fail to stop many or most of the environmental impacts he discussed in his article as well as punish the fisheries with the best practices and reward the ones that are the least sustainable.

Nor has Monbiot considered at all what the fishermen are supposed to do once they have lost their jobs. The fishing industry supports the livelihoods of 260 million people around the world (including 60 million employed directly), most of which are in the global south, where, unfortunately, most of the least sustainable fishing methods are practiced. To suggest that all those people must look for other lines of work in exploited developing world economies with poor social safety nets–without even offering a suggestion of how–epitomizes the arrogance and small-mindedness that the conservation movement is often criticized of. I’ve always thought such criticisms to be mostly baseless, so reading such an article from someone as eminent as Monbiot was quite distressing. Any actions taken to protect the environment that result in a loss of wealth or livelihoods for the lower and middle classes must be accompanied by measures aimed at alleviating the suffering of those populations, but no such recommendation is made in this article. Surely Monbiot’s readers would claim that he would support a job guarantee or something of the sort (no small task in developing countries), but it hasn’t been mentioned here, and ideas such as the one expressed in this article should only be brought about once these other measures are already in place, or at least simultaneously. This notion has very much entered the public consciousness in the past year or with the widespread popular support for the Green New Deal, so Monbiot is not exactly coming off as cutting-edge here.

Monbiot, I guess, expects these 260 million people to enter other industries that are even more monopolized. While he does point out that the fishing industry in two countries is highly concentrated, which major industry isn’t? Moreover, the highest-paid seafood CEOs in the world earn only couple million dollars a year–measly sums compared to the norm in other industries–and in many fisheries, such as the American and Canadian lobster fisheries on the eastern seaboard (the lobster industry is extremely stratified and supports communities all along the New England and Canadian coastlines), the harvesters must be independent owner-operators (fishermen who own their boats and do not work for anyone else). Plant-based food, on the other hand, comes from agribusiness, an industry far more concentrated than seafood: three entities control nearly 70% of the world’s pesticide and 80% of the US corn-seed market, while the top four companies control 70% of the US soybean market.

Finally, in order to debate the merit of Monbiot’s proposal, we must examine what it would actually entail and what the impacts would be: the major environmental NGOs, in conjunction with various activists and influencers, would launch a huge campaign aimed at demonizing seafood and the fishing industry and encouraging people to eat other foods instead. Most people would probably ignore them but might eat slightly less seafood due to the negative press. The most engaged consumers would perhaps give up seafood entirely. Many would eat meat instead, which would greatly increase GHG emissions. The most motivated would substitute seafood with plant-based foods–but precisely which seafood is being replaced here? These people are the ones most likely to consume conscientiously and look for the most sustainable seafood, using labels like the Marine Stewardship Council or the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. Thus, this campaign would decrease the market share of most sustainable seafood producers and reduce pressures for their competitors to improve.

 

This would be the ultimate result of such an absolutist position: in applying a blanket ban across the whole industry, such a campaign would make no distinction between the most environmentally conscious actors and the least, spurning the opportunity to help the industry improve in refusing to engage with it. If we want to take better care of the oceans, we must attempt to fish more sustainably rather than do nothing and pretend that someday we’ll voluntarily cease to fish entirely. When harvested with best practices, seafood is a renewable resource that can reduce hunger as well as greenhouse gas emissions (when eaten instead of meat). We must do everything we can to ensure that these best practices are used, and Monbiot’s proposal does nothing towards that end. Much more sensical would be to simply implement some of the suggestions he mentioned in his article, such as mandating the electronic monitoring of fishing vessels. The US and Australia have both made huge strides in recent years in making their fishing industries more sustainable; a far more useful article would be to recommend that others follow their example.

The world needs absolutists that apply pressure on institutions so that they do the best job they can in serving the public good. The world also needs organizations that engage with industry to help it become more sustainable. We simply do not have time to wait for a revolution to end capitalism to protect the environment: we have, at most, a few decades left to solve the most pressing crises that threaten our very survival (only 11 years left on climate change, for one). The Marine Stewardship Council is not an advocacy group or a movement builder; its job is to set a high bar that the seafood industry can strive to meet. No organization is perfect, and no certification program can grow to such a size without some controversies. But on the whole, MSC has done an absolutely outstanding job and has spurred over 1,200 distinct improvements on the water by over 94% of its certified fisheries as these fisheries have sought to maintain their certified status (a number that would be much greater if it included all the improvements made by fisheries interested in entering the program, who usually undergo Fishery Improvement Projects, or FIPs, beforehand).

 

Absolutists play a very necessary role in making sure that the organization keeps its bar so high, namely through the stakeholder consultation process that is part of the Fisheries Standard Review and the Objection Procedure that is part of the certification process. Activist journalists, too, play an important role in making sure that the public is involved and applying pressure in support of these absolutists so that the certification program does not become watered down the way that others have. But journalists also must provide a much-needed voice of reason in such turbulent times, and Monbiot has completely abdicated that responsibility here. People look to him for guidance, and he must consider the impacts that his words will have. And rather than provide practical, effective advice (if you’re not going to be a vegan or vegetarian, eat MSC certified seafood or maybe chicken or pork on occasion, but stay away from red meat as much as possible as well as any seafood with an ‘avoid’ rating on MBA’s Seafood Watch list), or galvanize us to apply pressure on governments and the fishing industry to adopt best practices, he has given us a myopic diatribe that can only cause more harm than good.

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