“Wait, so you’re a vegetarian, but you eat fish?” Annabel weighs up the pros and cons of pescatarianism as a more sustainable diet that could be a more achievable step for many than veganism.
‘Pescatarian’ can seem a confusing label. Some vegetarians say pescies don’t have a place alongside them because they eat any animal from the sea. Some even argue that you can’t call pescatarianism an ethical choice because it is selective in the issues it chooses to address- that it is nothing more than a diet. But in fact, pescatarianism could well be a healthier form of flextarianism, and can be an easier way to cut down the environmental impact of your diet. Some choose to keep fish on their plate as a stepping stone to vegetarianism or veganism. Whether a pescy diet is temporary or permanent, it has various health benefits- but is it truly sustainable enough to be classed as an ethical diet? The issues surrounding a plant and fish-based diet are vast and complex, but I hope in this article to give a brief overview of the ethics of a diet I’ve been following for the last two years.
A question I’m often asked is, “how are fish different to other animals?”. Indeed, fish do feel pain, but not in the same way that humans and other mammals do. In short, they lack the parts of our brains which allow us to consciously experience pain; fish only possess simple nerves, so they show physical responses to pain, but it’s difficult to prove that they feel suffering in the same way as us. But of course, mammals and fish are entirely different physically, so it’s perhaps over simplistic to dismiss their pain, just because it’s different to ours. Pescatarians kind of are ‘vegetarians that eat fish’ even if we can’t claim our diet respects the rights of all animals (vegans would surely argue the same about veggies- evil dairy industry anyone?). Perhaps you could argue it’s less cruel to catch an animal in its natural habitat than to systematically kill them in slaughterhouses.
But why single out seafood anyway? Why not just quit meat altogether?
Seafood is, in some ways, healthier than other meats. Though seafood has a similar protein, content to meat, it contains higher amounts of unsaturated fats, which help to lower blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. Even white meat like chicken has higher amounts of saturated fats than seafood. What’s more, it’s rich in vitamins such as A, D and B complex. Moreover, fish is much easier on your digestive system, because it contains less fat and connective tissues. So, choosing fish over meat is a potential way to improve your overall health.
But the more polluted the sea becomes, the more polluted its inhabitants are becoming- microplastics have recently been found in fish, but data on the amount of plastic people are potentially consuming is limited, and it’s been suggested that you’d have to eat a lot of seafood for you to be consuming a considerable amount of plastic. Canned fish also comes with the worry of high mercury content, but when eaten in moderation, there is no great risk to most people.
The most important thing to think about when critiquing a pescatarian or flexitarian diet, is that a vegetarian or vegan diet doesn’t always work for everyone. For those recovering from eating disorders, cutting out food groups can be a new unhealthy method of restriction. The Independent documented the case of one girl who used veganism to hide her eating disorders. For others, cutting out all sources of animal protein and staying healthy can be incredibly difficult, especially for those with conditions like IBS or nut allergies, which limit the variety of plant-based foods that they can eat. Cutting down is better for the environment than doing nothing at all, and the attitude that it’s ‘all or nothing’ does nothing but alienate people from the cause. To make a vegan diet affordable, you’ve realistically got to invest time in learning to cook for yourself from wholefoods. Many people don’t have the time or energy to do that.
The attitude of cutting down but not cutting out has been well publicised through the growth of flextarianism. As part of the EAT-Lancet commission, a group of scientists recently formulated a diet which they branded the “planetary health diet” which aims to help feed our ever-growing population sustainably. The diet encourages reducing, but not cutting out, our consumption of meat, fish and dairy. Fish has a lower carbon footprint than meat (as it doesn’t require farmland or livestock care) so could possibly be a more sustainable way to cut down without going full veggie/vegan. But sustainability is complex; the carbon footprint of a chicken from your local farm would surely be less than buying salmon fillets that have come from the Atlantic. For the environmentally conscious pescatarian, small schooling fish like herring and anchovies are better as they require less fuel to catch. Molluscs may also have a low climate impact, as they don’t need to be fed. In contrast, aquaculture requires large amounts of feed, which takes energy to make.
However, the main sustainability issue with a pescatarian diet is of course overfishing, which is a huge and ongoing problem. Although some fisheries in richer countries are doing their bit by introducing restrictions, this represents a very small sector of worldwide fishing- the US imports 90% of their seafood, and this comes from areas with less regulation, such as south-east Asia. The situation is dire, with fish stocks falling 3 times faster than the UN previously estimated. Overproduction is also an issue in the meat industry, with consumption rising six-fold since 1950. It’s well known that livestock use up a lot of water and land, and that cattle produce a ton of methane. Is eating fish the lesser of two evils?
Though it’s undeniable that a plant-based diet has a lower carbon footprint, pescatarianism is a step in the right direction, and can be healthier option for those with dietary issues. However, overfishing cannot be ignored, so moderation and trying to choose more sustainably sourced seafood is important. Diet is an incredibly personal choice, and the issues surrounding food are varied and complex. It’s easy to get bogged down in the consequences of your food choices, but all any of us can do is our best for our health and for the planet.
About the author: Annabel Mulliner is a student at the University of York. Alongside writing for WILD, she manages a student lifestyle blog, annabelmulliner.blog.