The Tricky Academics of Eating

Martin Smith’s class poses a simple question: Should I eat fish? But answering it sends students into murky waters.
November 5, 2012

On the first day of his marine conservation course this past January, Martin Smith told his eight undergraduates that they would play a game. One student would wait in the hallway. The other seven would stand around a conference table and go fishing.

“A couple of rules,” said Smith, the Dan and Bunny Gabel Associate Professor of environmental economics at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “No communicating with each other. No winks or nods, and certainly no overt discussion. Absolutely no physically harming each other. If it comes down to where violence is going to be involved, just restrain yourselves.”

Smith would stock the table with paper fish, he explained. The students had thirty seconds to harvest them. “Whatever’s left on the table, I will double,” he said. “Then you’ll have thirty seconds to fish again.” Each fish could be redeemed for one “participation point” toward the student’s final grade. Smith shook an envelope, and paper cutouts wafted to the table. “The ocean has been seeded,” he said. “Are you ready? Go fishing.”

Fourteen arms stretched and flailed as the students broke into a grabbing frenzy. Within seconds the table was bare—an imaginary ocean emptied of life. Smith maintained a straight face. “Now, Round Two,” he said. “There are zero fish left on the table. I will double zero.”

By now, the students realized that their competitive instincts had harmed their own self-interest. Smith welcomed the eighth classmate, Carolyn Groves ’12, back from the hallway, and invited her to play alone. Taking advantage of her monopoly, Groves removed no fish during the first round. During the second, she harvested a bounty.

“I guess Carolyn’s probably different, right?” Smith asked afterward. He looked at her. “You care about marine conservation?”

“Yes,” she said. Groves, an environmental science major, was earning a certificate in marine science and conservation leadership.

“So you’ve already signaled that you’re spending some of your precious Duke credits on protecting the oceans. The rest of you are, I take it, headed to Wall Street to perpetuate the next financial meltdown by getting rich as fast as you can, right?” The class laughed nervously. “No? Anyone else in the conservation certificate program?” Smith paused dramatically, mocking surprise as the seven initial participants raised their hands. “All of you? A group of marine-conservation students drove a fish stock to extinction—that’d make a nice headline, wouldn’t it?”

This was how eight students launched into a semester-long exploration of a question framed in the capstone course’s unofficial title: “Should I Eat Fish?” Like the game, the name was deceptively simple, hiding an ocean of complexities that such a question embodies. The name was also practical: Smith had planned an end-of-semester feast at his home, and the choice of entrées was up to the students. But the results of the fishing game already demonstrated that such a choice would not be easy.

Even after Smith declared a rematch, this time permitting students to talk, they still had trouble cooperating. The boisterous game offered a serious lesson: Every aspect of the food we eat is laden with complications. “What do you make of the claims that the problem of overfishing is the greed of the fishermen?” Smith asked. “Do you think that’s it?” The clear implication was no—that understanding seafood populations means studying globalization, regional governance, and our fundamental views of property rights and the commons. “For me as an economist,” he said, “this is the starting place.”

It was also the starting place for these environmentally literate undergraduates, who would spend the next fourteen weeks wrestling with nutrition, ecosystem health, community economics, world hunger, consumer theory, and animal welfare. They weighed competing and sometimes counterintuitive information in the hopes of answering a seemingly simple question: What’s for dinner?

Or put another way: How do we make affordable, nutritious food choices that also minimize human and animal suffering and protect the world’s resources? That question has recently consumed not only Smith’s students, but also many within the university—and indeed, much of the world. It has spawned blockbuster books and documentary films such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. and inspired efforts to get more locally produced food in campus eateries. Yet the question is hardly new.Within its arguments are echoes that go back for generations.

 

The conversation about responsible eating is ancient. Evidence pops up throughout the world’s religious traditions: Muslim halal laws, Jewish kashrut, the vegetarianism of Jains and some Hindus. Around 500 B.C.E., the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (of A2+B2=C2 fame) led a sect that eschewed meat, preaching, in the words of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “How horrible a Sin/That entrailes bleeding entrailes should intomb!” The Pythagorean justification for avoiding flesh—that humans and other creatures are bound in a cycle of karmic reincarnation—was strikingly similar to Hindu thought, prompting hypotheses that one culture borrowed its worldview from the other.

The modern contemplation of this issue began in the 1600s, when European intellectuals suggested that animals “had a value independent from human interests,” says Tristram Stuart, author of The Bloodless Revolution, a cultural history of vegetarianism. That basic principle launched a wideranging discussion that would feel familiar even now. “More or less without exception, every argument used today to defend vegetarianism had been developed before 1800,” Stuart says. The notion that crops used for livestock could more efficiently feed people? Read the eighteenth-century English theologian William Paley, a carnivore who nonetheless worried that, with the rise of meat consumption, “much…of the bread-corn, which went directly to the nourishment of human bodies, now only contributes to it by fattening the flesh of sheep and oxen.”

Stuart believes we’re witnessing a rebirth of that dialogue. “What we’ve seen is the first time in about 300 years that the rightness and wrongness of eating meat, and how much we should eat, and how it should be reared, is something which everyone in society has a stake in,” he says. The timing, he adds, is hardly random: People talk about dietary ethics when their own food security is threatened. With the world population surpassing 7 billion, wilderness is being cleared at alarming rates for meat and dairy production. Yet hunger continues to grow, raising questions about our long-term ability to feed ourselves.

Amidst these deliberations, seafood has often swum in a netherworld of dietary contradictions. Jews allow the mixing of fish, but not other flesh, with dairy. When Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays and during Lent, they substitute seafood. The fish was considered a “cold, sexless animal” that lacked “the sanguine humors that stirred desires,” Stuart writes, and the ethical ambivalence surrounding seafood seems to persist today. Many self-described vegetarians still put lox on their bagels or indulge in grilled shrimp.

Still, as Smith’s students learned, the issues surrounding seafood are no less complex than any other. Of Smith’s students, Carolyn Groves, the solo fisher, was one of two vegetarians. Another student was the meat-eating son of a McDonald’s franchisee who hoped to follow in his father’s career path. The rest fell along the dietary spectrum in complicated ways. “I didn’t like eating fish for a long time, but now I do,” said neuroscience major Cameron Zohoori ’12 during the first-day introductions. “I’m maybe trying to convince myself that I still don’t.” Zohoori has thought about food ethics since high school, but didn’t change his diet while living under his parents’ roof. “When I got to college, I tried a flexitarian thing for a while—being mostly vegetarian, but not strictly so—and found it easy to evolve back to what I’d been eating before.” Now he was trying to eat more mindfully, with the assumption that a mostly plant-based diet creates a lighter environmental footprint at a time of growing population stress. “I also realized I wasn’t getting enough extra value—pleasure, really—out of meat to make it worth the cost.”

Zohoori, a Robertson Scholar, knew that eating fish provides health benefits. But he felt less clear about the environmental impact of harvesting from specific habitats. “There are guides you can use— ‘this is a good alternative; this is something you should avoid’—but it’s so hard to know,” he said.

Even when you do know, it’s hard to divorce food from pleasure. “I had tuna in sushi last night,” biology major Mason Reynolds ’13 told the class. “I know that you’re not supposed to be eating bluefin,” an overfished cluster of species often caught with gear that accidentally kills sea turtles and marine mammals. “But at the restaurant, I wasn’t thinking, ‘What can I pick that’s most sustainable?’ I was thinking, ‘What on this menu looks good?’”

Reynolds is no environmental lightweight. When she was twelve, she attended a summer camp on Chesapeake Bay and witnessed the antipathy local crabbers felt toward conservationists. Later, while studying at Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, Reynolds helped teach conservation science to the children of commercial fisherman. Their teacher reminded her of the realities of the local economy. “It is expensive to install a turtle-excluder device on your nets. It is difficult when you have lots of licensing fees that a recreational fisherman might not have to pay,” Reynolds said. Those experiences gave her sympathy for both sides of what is often a polarized debate. “You really have to hold sustainability and the economy on an equal pedestal,” she said. “It’s important to figure out ways to make both work.” But while she tries to eat responsibly, sometimes an alluring fish is hard to resist.

“Wow, isn’t that tough?” Smith asked. “We have this sense of what the right thing is, but this other thing is tugging at us.” When we inconvenience ourselves to behave ethically, “there’s no instant gratification,” said Groves, the vegetarian. There might be a minuscule impact. “But I can’t see that. I can’t measure it.”

“Especially if it’s just you,” Reynolds added.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket,” Smith said. “If you had passed on the sushi last night, would it make a shred of difference?”

“Not really,” Reynolds replied. “The restaurant had already bought the fish.”

Smith explained that every consumer decision shifts demand slightly. “They might not order quite as much next time. So maybe it would make a teeny, tiny difference, but not one that you could perceive. So that becomes an abstract sacrifice: ‘Yum, I’m eating it now’ vs. ‘I’m feeling like I’m doing the right thing, and it’s maybe making some difference.’ Pretty hard to get people to make those kinds of choices.”

“The good news is,” the professor continued, “you probably didn’t eat bluefin tuna. Unless it was a really expensive restaurant.”

“It still feels bad,” Reynolds said. “It’s still on the Monterey list.” She was referring to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood- Watch wallet cards and smartphone apps, which urge consumers to avoid the fish entirely.

“Ah, yes,” Smith said. “We’ll get to those lists.”

 

Illustration by Bruno Mallart

Like much of the world, Duke’s campus has experienced an uptick in food awareness, though not a universal one. “Our numbers at McDonald’s have not declined,” says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. “Rather than suggest some kind of comprehensive movement, what I sense is activist pockets. Even the protest movement around the Refectory suggests there’s an emerging subculture of students and others who are acutely aware of their food.” (The Refectory, a sustainable-foods café, closed its divinity school business, one of two campus locations, this past summer after a financial dispute with the university. The café has since reopened under new ownership.)

Moneta calls 2011-12 Duke’s “year of food.” Among its initiatives was the inaugural “University Course”—taught by faculty from across departments and open to all students—called “Food Studies: Inter-disciplinary Approaches to Why, What, and How We Eat.” The curriculum included labor issues, food security, industrialization, and meat eating, and each class was followed by a relevant meal at the Refectory. Thirty minutes after registration opened, all seventy-five slots were filled.

The previous summer, incoming students read Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer’s exploration of the issues informing his own journey toward vegetarianism. Foer comes down hardest on confinement farms and industrial slaughterhouses— chronicling, for example, the skinning of cattle while they’re still alive. But he doesn’t spare seafood producers. He writes about salmon farms contaminated with sea lice, which “sometimes eat down to the bones on a fish’s face.” He lists many of the 145 species, including dolphins and sea turtles, killed by tuna fishermen. “Imagine being served a plate of sushi,” he writes. “But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.”

After that summer reading, “we saw perhaps a handful of students that decided to become vegetarian,” says Franca Alphin, director of nutrition services at Student Health. But maintaining a healthy plantbased diet takes work. “They couldn’t just grab what they usually had, so it became somewhat of an inconvenience. Some didn’t realize that when you remove meat from the diet, the protein has to come from somewhere else.” As a result, Alphin says, “many of them, as the semester went on, went back to more of their routine eating habits.”

 

Illustration by Bruno Mallart

Smith’s course took the opposite approach from Eating Animals. Even when he covered the same topics—the accidental killing of non-target species or pollution caused by aquaculture—Smith stressed brain over gut. He assigned academic readings and filled his whiteboard with formulas and demand curves. “People can read advocacy on their own,” he says.

For Zohoori, that was a relief from the usual discourse. “I have heard a lot of the passionate moral arguments, and I think those need to be taken seriously,” he said in an interview. But it’s easy to tune those statements out when they strike a radical tone. “It’s valuable to be able to sit down and analyze it from a lot of different perspectives.” Even without red-hot polemics about animal welfare, “there are other important reasons to reconsider the way that we eat and produce food.”

Take the issues of food security and global trade. One mantra of the current food movement is “local”—reducing shipping miles and supporting one’s neighbors are articles of faith. Yet seafood exports are essential to many developing economies. “Some countries are selling high-value products to the European Union and the U.S. and importing dried cod from Norway,” Smith told his class. “How many of you had dried cod this week? No? Didn’t have any dried cod stew? It’s very healthy protein, very cheap protein. Probably doesn’t taste as good as seared ahi.” Poorer exporting countries can use the surplus value of their premium seafood to “eat a little bit more than they otherwise would.” That sounds like a compelling argument for buying shrimp from Thailand or lobsters from Mexico.

But rather than make a slam-dunk case against locavorism, Smith teased out some caveats. “What are we worried about?” he asked.

“Is all that imported food really getting to the whole population?” asked Jess Lehigh ’12.

Exactly, Smith said. “What else?” “Are they managing the stocks sustainably?” asked Zohoori. Not everyone does. Bad stewards “might be liquidating their natural capital to get some trade benefit in the short run,” Smith said. “So we’re sitting here in a wealthy country, and we care about this. What’s to be done?”

“I guess we can stop buying exports,” said Lehigh.

“Stop buying exports,” Smith repeated. “Supposing the system worked the way we said at the beginning: Sell lobsters and buy dried cod. What’s going to happen?”

“[The poorer nation] can’t buy dried cod any more,” Zohoori said. “Is that going to help people in developing countries?” Smith asked. “Probably not. But supposing there’s some corrupt official who’s exporting lobsters, taking the money, and lining his pocket. He has ten Rolls-Royces. Then all of a sudden that trade policy”—the U.S. eschewing that country’s exports—“is starting to sound a little better, especially if the resource is not managed sustainably.”

If the conversation ended inconclusively, that made it similar to many of Smith’s lessons. Its teachings embrace the ambiguity that wallet cards and smartphone apps aim to cut through with color-coded labels— green is okay, yellow more iffy, stay away from red. But the cards’ advisories only seem simple: In April, the class read an article by economist Cathy Roheim arguing that seafood guides from different organizations contradict one another. What’s more, she wrote, using wallet cards can prove “frustrating” when supermarket and restaurant staff can’t provide details like a fish’s country of origin, whether it was farmed or wild, and what fishing gear was used to catch it.

With some purchasing decisions, like buying a used car, information clearly benefits consumers, Smith said. “But the complexity of boats in the water, fishing multiple species in multiple regions, supply chains, products that are substitutes, consumer preferences, buying things through supermarkets, consumer-supported fisheries, fish markets, going to restaurants— all that complexity—this information is somehow going to fix it all? I don’t know.”

 

Smith saved his animal-welfare lesson for the end of the semester. To provoke debate, he assigned a reading by historian Roderick Nash suggesting that, over time, civilization is moving along an ethical continuum from expanding human rights (outlawing slavery and discrimination, for example) to recognizing the rights of animals and even plants and rocks.

“Do you feel that there’s a distinction?” Smith asked. “Or is that just where we happen to be sitting?”

“Suffering is the key metric,” Zohoori said. “As far as we know, plants don’t have nervous systems that allow them to suffer. At the same time, that’s what people thought about animals at one point.”

Smith zeroed in on animal rights. “What do you all think about this particular analogy to anti-slavery movements?” he asked. “How did that strike you?”

“I hesitate to think that, ethically, it’s the same as the abolition movement, which at least now we recognize was about extending rights to those who are like us,” said Zohoori. “This is very clearly about judging something that is not us.” He paused to reflect—after all, he noted, not everyone considered American slaves “like us” 150 years ago. “It’s hazy, I guess,” he concluded.

“What about fish?” Smith asked a few minutes later. “Where do fish fit in our spectrum of their propensity to experience pain or suffering?”

“You pull them out of the water and just let them suffocate to death,” said Martin Steren ’12, whose father is the McDonald’s franchisee. “Most food industries kill the animal reasonably quickly, with electroshock or something. Fish, you let them sit out there until they die.”

And what about industrial aquaculture? Is it as troublesome, from a humanitarian perspective, as confinement beef or poultry farming? “I think you could make an argument that a cow would be more aware of how bad its life is than a fish would,” Groves said. “But personally I think they’re the same.”

“I think they’re different,” Zohoori said. “The feelings felt by a cow, which are hard to define, are probably greater than that by a fish, and definitely greater than that by a shrimp. But we don’t understand enough to define it clearly. It’s hard to draw lines and decide what’s okay.” Whether it’s livestock or farmed fish, Zohoori said, there’s one clear commonality: “The lives the animals are leading are not their natural lives. They’re not allowed to have the kinds of lives that they’re supposed to lead.”

Yet fish conjure less empathy, said Jazmin Garcia ’12, because they don’t communicate their suffering. “The way we know when an animal’s in pain is because it makes a lot of noise,” said the biology major. “Fish don’t make noise. It’s just going to flop there. It’s not going to scream at you. But a cow will.”

The debate continued for thirty minutes before someone asked Smith a question that had gone unasked all semester: “What do you think?”

“When I step out of my pragmatic self, I love the idea of extending rights to nature,” the economist said. “I even get into the Star Trek aspect of it, [where] they could synthesize their food. But in the world that we live in today, I default to trying to minimize suffering. It causes me a little bit of heartache to think about my own food choices, and whether eating fish occasionally might be perpetrating significant amounts of suffering—getting caught with a hook in [one’s] face. I struggle with it a lot.”

  

That day, Smith popped the big question: What’s for dinner? Specifically, what’s on the menu for the class’ semester-ending feast?

The trick, of course, was that this class was not designed to produce epiphanies. The students most visibly struggling with ethical eating, Zohoori and Reynolds, continued to grapple (and still do). Fish should be on the menu, everyone agreed. But did the special occasion merit a delicious species that faces major population stress? (No.) What about responsibly farmed salmon? Or hatchery-raised salmon? (Maybe.)

“This is hard,” said Groves. “I want this to be the perfect embodiment of everything we’ve been talking about.”

“There’s so much gray area,” Zohoori said.

The class relegated the details of the menu to their professor, but offered guidelines: The fish should come from ecologically healthy populations, and at least some of it should be local. It should be delicious. And because this was a special occasion, it was fine to include a small amount of yellowfin tuna (ahi), which represents the epitome of taste. “There are debates about the biological sustainability of yellowfin,” Smith said, “but there is not great reason for concern like there is with bluefin.”

Smith started the evening with an appetizer of seared ahi seasoned with Hawaiian red sea salt and served with a ponzu dipping sauce. For the entrees, he cooked Alaskan halibut in a coconut curry with star anise, along with local flounder broiled Vietnamese-style. The halibut offered an example of good policymaking: Back in the 1990s, it was “one of the most economically wasteful fisheries in the world,” Smith said. With unlimited boats allowed to participate, “the entire season’s quota was caught in a mad derby lasting just a few days” (not unlike the game on the first day of class). The vast majority of the catch had to be frozen. After the system was changed to give individual fishermen their own quotas—which could be traded on the free market—the number of vessels declined “and the season extended to over 200 days so that fresh halibut could be sold most of the year.” The fresh fish could be sold for a premium, boosting profits.

Smith prepared vegan entrees, too, and mangos with sticky rice for dessert. For one night, there were no formulas or demand curves. Afterward, he took out his guitar. The students—most getting ready to graduate, to figure out their careers and adult diets—gathered around their professor. And they sang.

 

Yeoman is a journalist based in Durham. His recent work has been published in OnEarth, Audubon, The American Prospect, and Parade.