Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Dan Barber: How I fell in love with a fish

Dan Barber: How I fell in love with a fish

So, I’ve known a lot of fish in my life. I’ve loved only two. That first one, it was more like a passionate affair. It was a beautiful fish: flavorful, textured, meaty, a bestseller on the menu. What a fish. (Laughter) Even better, it was farm-raised to the supposed highest standards of sustainability. So you could feel good about selling it. I was in a relationship with this beauty for several months. One day, the head of the company called and asked if I’d speak at an event about the farm’s sustainability. “Absolutely,” I said. Here was a company trying to solve what’s become this unimaginable problem for us chefs: How do we keep fish on our menus? For the past 50 years, we’ve been fishing the seas like we clear-cut forests. It’s hard to overstate the destruction. Ninety percent of large fish, the ones we love — the tunas, the halibuts, the salmons, swordfish — they’ve collapsed. There’s almost nothing left. So, for better or for worse, aquaculture, fish farming, is going to be a part of our future. A lot of arguments against it: Fish farms pollute — most of them do anyway — and they’re inefficient. Take tuna, a major drawback. It’s got a feed conversion ratio of 15 to one. That means it takes fifteen pounds of wild fish to get you one pound of farm tuna. Not very sustainable. It doesn’t taste very good either. So here, finally, was a company trying to do it right. I wanted to support them. The day before the event, I called the head of P.R. for the company. Let’s call him Don. “Don,” I said, “just to get the facts straight, you guys are famous for farming so far out to sea, you don’t pollute.” “That’s right,” he said. “We’re so far out, the waste from our fish gets distributed, not concentrated.” And then he added, “We’re basically a world unto ourselves. That feed conversion ratio? 2.5 to one,” he said. “Best in the business.” 2.5 to one, great. “2.5 what? What are you feeding?” “Sustainable proteins,” he said. “Great,” I said. Got off the phone. And that night, I was lying in bed, and I thought: What the hell is a sustainable protein? (Laughter) So the next day, just before the event, I called Don. I said, “Don, what are some examples of sustainable proteins?” He said he didn’t know. He would ask around. Well, I got on the phone with a few people in the company; no one could give me a straight answer until finally, I got on the phone with the head biologist. Let’s call him Don too. (Laughter) “Don,” I said, “what are some examples of sustainable proteins?” Well, he mentioned some algaes and some fish meals, and then he said chicken pellets. I said, “Chicken pellets?” He said, “Yeah, feathers, skin, bone meal, scraps, dried and processed into feed.” I said, “What percentage of your feed is chicken?” Thinking, you know, two percent. “Well, it’s about 30 percent,” he said. I said, “Don, what’s sustainable about feeding chicken to fish?” (Laughter) There was a long pause on the line, and he said, “There’s just too much chicken in the world.” (Laughter) I fell out of love with this fish. (Laughter) No, not because I’m some self-righteous, goody-two shoes foodie. I actually am. (Laughter) No, I actually fell out of love with this fish because, I swear to God, after that conversation, the fish tasted like chicken. (Laughter) This second fish, it’s a different kind of love story. It’s the romantic kind, the kind where the more you get to know your fish, you love the fish. I first ate it at a restaurant in southern Spain. A journalist friend had been talking about this fish for a long time. She kind of set us up. (Laughter) It came to the table a bright, almost shimmering, white color. The chef had overcooked it. Like twice over. Amazingly, it was still delicious. Who can make a fish taste good after it’s been overcooked? I can’t, but this guy can. Let’s call him Miguel — actually his name is Miguel. (Laughter) And no, he didn’t cook the fish, and he’s not a chef, at least in the way that you and I understand it. He’s a biologist at Veta La Palma. It’s a fish farm in the southwestern corner of Spain. It’s at the tip of the Guadalquivir river. Until the 1980s, the farm was in the hands of the Argentinians. They raised beef cattle on what was essentially wetlands. They did it by draining the land. They built this intricate series of canals, and they pushed water off the land and out into the river. Well, they couldn’t make it work, not economically. And ecologically, it was a disaster. It killed like 90 percent of the birds, which, for this place, is a lot of birds. And so in 1982, a Spanish company with an environmental conscience purchased the land. What did they do? They reversed the flow of water. They literally flipped the switch. Instead of pushing water out, they used the channels to pull water back in. They flooded the canals. They created a 27,000-acre fish farm — bass, mullet, shrimp, eel — and in the process, Miguel and this company completely reversed the ecological destruction. The farm’s incredible. I mean, you’ve never seen anything like this. You stare out at a horizon that is a million miles away, and all you see are flooded canals and this thick, rich marshland. I was there not long ago with Miguel. He’s an amazing guy, like three parts Charles Darwin and one part Crocodile Dundee. (Laughter) Okay? There we are slogging through the wetlands, and I’m panting and sweating, got mud up to my knees, and Miguel’s calmly conducting a biology lecture. Here, he’s pointing out a rare Black-shouldered Kite. Now, he’s mentioning the mineral needs of phytoplankton. And here, here he sees a grouping pattern that reminds him of the Tanzanian Giraffe. It turns out, Miguel spent the better part of his career in the Mikumi National Park in Africa. I asked him how he became such an expert on fish. He said, “Fish? I didn’t know anything about fish. I’m an expert in relationships.” And then he’s off, launching into more talk about rare birds and algaes and strange aquatic plants. And don’t get me wrong, that was really fascinating, you know, the biotic community unplugged, kind of thing. It’s great, but I was in love. And my head was swooning over that overcooked piece of delicious fish I had the night before. So I interrupted him. I said, “Miguel, what makes your fish taste so good?” He pointed at the algae. “I know, dude, the algae, the phytoplankton, the relationships: It’s amazing. But what are your fish eating? What’s the feed conversion ratio?” Well, he goes on to tell me it’s such a rich system that the fish are eating what they’d be eating in the wild. The plant biomass, the phytoplankton, the zooplankton, it’s what feeds the fish. The system is so healthy, it’s totally self-renewing. There is no feed. Ever heard of a farm that doesn’t feed its animals? Later that day, I was driving around this property with Miguel, and I asked him, I said, “For a place that seems so natural, unlike like any farm I’d ever been at, how do you measure success?” At that moment, it was as if a film director called for a set change. And we rounded the corner and saw the most amazing sight: thousands and thousands of pink flamingos, a literal pink carpet for as far as you could see. “That’s success,” he said. “Look at their bellies, pink. They’re feasting.” Feasting? I was totally confused. I said, “Miguel, aren’t they feasting on your fish?” (Laughter) “Yes,” he said. (Laughter) “We lose 20 percent of our fish and fish eggs to birds. Well, last year, this property had 600,000 birds on it, more than 250 different species. It’s become, today, the largest and one of the most important private bird sanctuaries in all of Europe.” I said, “Miguel, isn’t a thriving bird population like the last thing you want on a fish farm?” (Laughter) He shook his head, no. He said, “We farm extensively, not intensively. This is an ecological network. The flamingos eat the shrimp. The shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the belly, the better the system.” Okay, so let’s review: a farm that doesn’t feed its animals, and a farm that measures its success on the health of its predators. A fish farm, but also a bird sanctuary. Oh, and by the way, those flamingos, they shouldn’t even be there in the first place. They brood in a town 150 miles away, where the soil conditions are better for building nests. Every morning, they fly 150 miles into the farm. And every evening, they fly 150 miles back. (Laughter) They do that because they’re able to follow the broken white line of highway A92. (Laughter) No kidding. I was imagining a “March of the Penguins” thing, so I looked at Miguel. I said, “Miguel, do they fly 150 miles to the farm, and then do they fly 150 miles back at night? Do they do that for the children?” He looked at me like I had just quoted a Whitney Houston song. (Laughter) He said, “No; they do it because the food’s better.” (Laughter) I didn’t mention the skin of my beloved fish, which was delicious — and I don’t like fish skin; I don’t like it seared, I don’t like it crispy. It’s that acrid, tar-like flavor. I almost never cook with it. Yet, when I tasted it at that restaurant in southern Spain, it tasted not at all like fish skin. It tasted sweet and clean, like you were taking a bite of the ocean. I mentioned that to Miguel, and he nodded. He said, “The skin acts like a sponge. It’s the last defense before anything enters the body. It evolved to soak up impurities.” And then he added, “But our water has no impurities.” OK. A farm that doesn’t feed its fish, a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators. And then I realized when he says, “A farm that has no impurities,” he made a big understatement, because the water that flows through that farm comes in from the Guadalquivir River. It’s a river that carries with it all the things that rivers tend to carry these days: chemical contaminants, pesticide runoff. And when it works its way through the system and leaves, the water is cleaner than when it entered. The system is so healthy, it purifies the water. So, not just a farm that doesn’t feed its animals, not just a farm that measures its success by the health of its predators, but a farm that’s literally a water purification plant — and not just for those fish, but for you and me as well. Because when that water leaves, it dumps out into the Atlantic. A drop in the ocean, I know, but I’ll take it, and so should you, because this love story, however romantic, is also instructive. You might say it’s a recipe for the future of good food, whether we’re talking about bass or beef cattle. What we need now is a radically new conception of agriculture, one in which the food actually tastes good. (Laughter) (Applause) But for a lot people, that’s a bit too radical. We’re not realists, us foodies; we’re lovers. We love farmers’ markets, we love small family farms, we talk about local food, we eat organic. And when you suggest these are the things that will ensure the future of good food, someone, somewhere stands up and says, “Hey guy, I love pink flamingos, but how are you going to feed the world?” How are you going to feed the world? Can I be honest? I don’t love that question. No, not because we already produce enough calories to more than feed the world. One billion people will go hungry today. One billion — that’s more than ever before — because of gross inequalities in distribution, not tonnage. Now, I don’t love this question because it’s determined the logic of our food system for the last 50 years. Feed grain to herbivores, pesticides to monocultures, chemicals to soil, chicken to fish, and all along agribusiness has simply asked, “If we’re feeding more people more cheaply, how terrible could that be?” That’s been the motivation, it’s been the justification: it’s been the business plan of American agriculture. We should call it what it is: a business in liquidation, a business that’s quickly eroding ecological capital that makes that very production possible. That’s not a business, and it isn’t agriculture. Our breadbasket is threatened today, not because of diminishing supply, but because of diminishing resources. Not by the latest combine and tractor invention, but by fertile land; not by pumps, but by fresh water; not by chainsaws, but by forests; and not by fishing boats and nets, but by fish in the sea. Want to feed the world? Let’s start by asking: How are we going to feed ourselves? Or better: How can we create conditions that enable every community to feed itself? (Applause) To do that, don’t look at the agribusiness model for the future. It’s really old, and it’s tired. It’s high on capital, chemistry and machines, and it’s never produced anything really good to eat. Instead, let’s look to the ecological model. That’s the one that relies on two billion years of on-the-job experience. Look to Miguel, farmers like Miguel. Farms that aren’t worlds unto themselves; farms that restore instead of deplete; farms that farm extensively instead of just intensively; farmers that are not just producers, but experts in relationships. Because they’re the ones that are experts in flavor, too. And if I’m going to be really honest, they’re a better chef than I’ll ever be. You know, I’m okay with that, because if that’s the future of good food, it’s going to be delicious. Thank you. (Applause)

100 comments on “Dan Barber: How I fell in love with a fish

  1. @veganath I would label myself as utilitarian. (With some added bits to be more robust to lack of information and lack of objectivity in the definition of good). So I have A (not necessarily THE) basis for morality.

    The big difference between your form of morality and mine seems to be that harming someone is much worse in your opinion than letting harm happen to someone through inaction.
    Unnecessary animal suffering is immoral. Growing GM pigs to harvest organs for transplants is moral.

  2. @Paulginz Being utilitarian, u look to stem inefficiencies, and you agree that we should not cause unnecessary suffering to humans & non-humans, it's always nice to meet other vegetarians;-)
    On the issue of harvesting GM pig organs, wouldn't it be more utilitarian to grow human clones to minimize the inherent rejection of xenotransplantation of transgenic organ by a host?

  3. @veganath You would need to clone everyone pre-emptively to allow time for growth. Also you would need to develop artificial uteri etc. Growing organs from one's own stem cells is the next likely step forward (already done for some organs).

    I'm not a vegetarian. I have plenty of rationalisations: e.g. The choice isn't between life and death for the animals, since they wouldn't be born in the first place if not for farming. But mainly I put a much higher weight on my happiness than on a cow's.

  4. @Paulginz U say your not vegetarian & yet advocate that "Unnecessary animal suffering is immoral". You also claim to be utlitarian, but it seems only when convenient.
    Well, it is the year 2010, there is no government today that say you need to eat any foods derived from animal sources to live in optimal health. On the contrary main stream medicos are advocating less consumption to prevent the early onset of chronically debilitating diseases.

  5. @Paulginz For the word "NECESSARY" to mean anything, it cannot include AMUSEMENT, CONVENIENCE, or PLEASURE!!

    Therefore the best justification we have for causing unimaginable suffering to billions of non-human animals every year is that – 'They taste good!!' Sounds a lot like 'Pleasure'!!

  6. @Paulginz So if we have agreed with the original premise that we should not cause unnecessary suffering to animals & we take seriously our moral/ethical convictions & do not want to appear hypocritical then we cannot sit down to a meal that includes the consumption of meat!!

  7. @Paulginz The jury is not out on the inefficiencies of rearing animals for food!!
    In tracking food animal production from the feed through to the dinner table, the inefficiencies of meat, milk and egg production range from a 4:1 energy input to protein output ratio up to 54:1. The result is that producing animal-based food is typically much less efficient than the harvesting of grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and fruits for direct human consumption.

  8. @Paulginz Additionally, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is associated with the clearing of rainforests, resource depletion, air and water pollution, land and economic inefficiency, species extinction, and other environmental harms.
    Paul if you truly claim to be Utilitarian then you need to seriously give consideration to what that means. A genuine Utilitarian would have to be vegan, if they don't simply want to appear hypocritical.

  9. @veganath
    I created a moral system the only way moral systems have ever been created since the dawn of time: I observed my behaviour and cultural prejudices, and found a system of axiomatic rules which would justify as many of them as possible while staying logically consistent. Which is why I used the term "rationalisation".

    IIRC vegan diets decrease lifespan when adjusting for social factors (including health-consciousness).
    I agree that we consume too much red meat on average.

  10. @veganath If the meaning of necessity is restricted to life-or-death situations, then it isn't necessary to avoid torture. There has to be a trade-off between quantity and quality of life somewhere. I should have used the word useless instead.

    Depending on the type of farming, the amount of suffering can be less than would be expected in the wild. Abattoirs are designed to reduce (as much as cheaply possible) fear and suffering (it toughens the meat apparently).

  11. @veganath Yes farming is inefficient. (except some cases e.g. extensive farming where the grazing land is unsuitable for agriculture.)
    (Also, energy is not a fair metric (c.f. atkin's diet), protein content is better. Sill it's inefficient)

    Inefficiency in of itself is not damning. Do you only eat the most efficient-to-grow healthy combination of vegetables? Or choose some based on taste? This means you are willing to sacrifice a little bit of rainforest for tastier food. (continued)

  12. @veganath (continued) So it's not a categorical yes/no moral dilemma.
    The question is HOW MUCH environmental harm tasty diverse food is worth.

    We were specifically discussing meat though. The problem is that you are making a fallacious comparison. The alternative to "killing a cow to get my multi-yearly consumption of meat" is NOT "letting the cow live an idyllic life in the wild". It's "Never letting that cow be born".

    The next problem of course is whether we should kill carnivorous animals.

  13. Miguel is such a perfect example of what systems should strive for, but I think the biggest question is, how to accomplish this goal? What can we do to change our food system? Where should we start? How to be innovative and economically viable? Ted talks provokes so many questions…

  14. what a great speaker! i click on the video by accident… i dont know anything about fish and got sucked in…and watch the whole video!

  15. @89jwood then explain what's so unrealistic about it? Science might be focusing on other means of getting food but hey, it's not neccessarily the right frame of mind.

  16. beautiful talk .. loved it. shows how much dan barber has prepared for this. and loved the standing ovation the audience gave him at the end.

  17. If you're a natural gardener, or concerned about the nutritional value of your food, you NEED to watch this; especailly the last ten minutes.
    The first part is nice and informative and entertaining as well.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

    God Bless,

  18. Excellent! Now all we have to do is turn exponential population growth into a decline so this sustainable system can sustain us!

  19. i wish more people watched tedtalks. these lectures are the truly instructive material that could really make a difference.

  20. Totally awesome. I man after my own heart. I appreciate him exposing more of the truth behind the American fish farming. I don't eat them – if I can help it.

  21. Thank you. The farming method described *is* revolutionary, but it's also quite popular – just very unusual on a large scale. It's called Permaculture.

  22. Incredible speaker. Better the second time around. Also a cooker of flesh getting a standing ovation from TEDster veggies is no easy feat

  23. There's an ignorance on this planet towards sustainable systems. I've literally talked to people that, no matter what, believe the factory farmed systems invented by the corporations are the only way to feed us. IT'S SAD.

  24. Someone was successful here! This speaker has made me think different about ecology and food something I've never considered very important IN THIS WAY…

  25. Boy oh Boy, I loved hearing this Ted Talk the first time I heard it about a year ago, and Dan still sounds good with this much time away. I told almost everyone I know about this talk, (one of my favorites) and put it in a link list I send to new friends and acquaintances "about ideas worth sharing"…
    Thank you for posting this here on YouTube for me to come across while compiling a playlist about DanBarber of Blue Hills @ Stone Farms. He is such a great storyteller/speaker!

  26. Great talk. Here in NZ we have NZ King Salmon wanting to pollute the Marlborough Sounds with sea cages supported by the National Government. These proposed farms will use the waterways as a sewer outfall putting the waste of approx half a million people into the Sounds if successful. All under the guise of feeding a hungry world. National and other parties would do well to watch this video for a sustainable way forward. See video Suffocating the Sounds on Frenchpass youtube channel.

  27. If you're in love with this fish farm too, please sign my petition to create awareness of this idea that needs to be replicated worldwide.

    Google 'More Fish Farms That Heal the Environment' – it's on The Petition Site

  28. It's sort of like an agroforestry project, but for wetland fishing. Makes alot of sense.

    Also, Dan clearly borrows a lot of his public speaking from Obama. In some segments there cadence is identical.

  29. "How can we create conditions that allow every community to feed itself?"
    I LOVE this question! This gets us thinking in the right direction. Spread out the dependence, don't centralize it. Encourage healthy food bioregions EVERYWHERE!

  30. Why are people so amazed that nature can take care of itself and revert to a healthier state over time when we stop fucking with it? Biology is intelligent.

  31. Came here thinking this was a video about a guy talking about a fish he loves. Love love. Boy was I disappointed.

  32. let's reverse the mess we've been put into! sustainable, restorative, ecological "farming" is the way to go! the best design is intelligent design, so let's follow what was already here for us!

  33. This is great, and I agree with 99% of what he's saying. But here's the problem, government, at least here in the U.S., is working against this type of production. Having communities which can "feed themselves" means less dependency on centralized government. Govt. trends in the last 10-20 years have meant MORE dependency on centralized government. Ironically, I'd bet that many in this audience support centralized government.

  34. Read this guys book "The Third Plate". Best cookbook I have ever read with only one recipe. Leave Mother Nature alone, and she will thank you.

  35. I love this concept like you all do, but consider that this is not a farm. Its essentially just harvesting at a low density from wild production, more like a ranch with very few inputs (if any, juveniles?). There cannot and will not be many of these in the world unless you can sell the product for 3 times the price. The whole reason we had to start farming fish was because of human population density issues. This extensive farming has to be subsidized and is not economically a viable option. Its awesome in theory, but not how we are going to feed the world, because people won't stop having kids. I've been involved in aquaculture projects in 8 countries, and this guy never addresses the question of economic viability (which makes the world turn), nor the idea that per unit area, its not producing enough to pay for the initial investment of land purchase. He also doesn't really answer the question he poses to himself of how are we going to feed the world. I like the talk, the guy and the idea, but please, understand the practicality of this and don't look at all commercial aquaculture as evil without considering each farm. We are learning as this young industry develops. (Also, keep in mind that we feed fish oil to most of our animals, which is not natural, so why is feeding chicken waste parts to carnivorous fish, the worst thing that's ever happened? It's something that should be kept minimal (I've never heard of anything like 30% in a non experimental setting), but lets not make fish farmers out to be devils while terrestrial farmers are doing the same and worse things).

  36. good to see sustainable farming. Too many environmental disasters from outdated practices.
    Very Good talk.

  37. I cant believe something like this of such scale exits. Worth for all agriculturalist to learn NEW definition of "sustainability" – high time we start doing our bit to protect our ecology.

  38. One of my favourite TED talks ever. He hit the nail right on the head, and this is an issue of such deep importance to everyday life and our impacts on the world.

  39. I'm a little confused. If the chicken protein being fed to the fish is a by-product of chicken farming and does not drive up demand, then wouldn't feeding it to fish be a sustainable thing to do?

  40. Je recherche un stage en alimentation (je suis formation ingénieur en agroalimentaire) ça pourrais bien me botter ça !!!

  41. His talk about an alternative ecological wholistic farming model in Spain with great humor, truly fascinating, educational and entertaining

  42. Meat is unhealthy. There is so much evidence but certainly it is unnecessary. Taste is not a good enough reason to kill a creature. Meat is murder.

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