They’re Coming for Your Shrimp

H.L. Mencken famously defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Yesterday’s puritans worried about their neighbors enjoying alcohol or gambling too much. Today’s neo-Puritan activists fear that someone, somewhere, may be enjoying…a plate of shrimp. And, like the puritans of yesteryear, they see grave danger in allowing people this simple pleasure. They claim that much of the $7 billion worth of shrimp produced globally each year hurts the environment, so they want people in America and other developed countries to eat less shrimp to curb the damage.

Persuading people to feel bad about enjoying shrimp won’t be easy. For one thing, there is no shortage of this popular food, so claims of shrimp being endangered are a tough sell. In a typical year, Americans consume more than 1 billion pounds of shrimp, according to the American Seafood Distributors Association. About 90 percent of that comes from overseas, often from commercial shrimp farms in developing countries.

Now a coalition of environmental activists wants Americans who like to dine at chain restaurants, such as Long John Silver’s, to eat less shrimp from the Third World. This coalition includes veterans of past protest campaigns, such as Greenpeace, Public Citizen, and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), but even these stalwarts have had trouble getting traction on this issue, though not for lack of trying.

Last year, EJF claimed that Western demand for farmed shrimp was leading to "a range of human rights abuses" in the Third World, including "sexual abuse, rape, child labor, forced labor and murder." Consumers failed to respond to this call to action — even hard-core green activists must have found this over the top — so now EJF is trying a different tack. In May, EJF issued a report claiming that shrimp farming causes "a plethora of environmental degradation" in poor countries. It blames the global spread of shrimp farms on a loose alliance of peasants, who see the farms as a ticket out of their poverty, and governments and foreign development agencies, who encourage the peasants into the business. Today, shrimp farming is an important niche industry in many developing countries, including Thailand, Vietnam, China, India and Mexico.

Now, before rushing to picket your local Red Lobster, consider the lopsided portrayal of shrimp farms in the greens’ rhetoric. As The Economist reported last year, environmentalists often describe shrimp farms and other aquaculture efforts as "alarming environmental and health hazard[s]," while they overlook the potential of these farms becoming a reliable "source of food for the world’s rich and poor alike." They also ignore the fact that aquaculture "is at an early stage of development," and, that as farms become more efficient, the costs of production — and any negative effects on the environment — will shrink.

Environmental activists overlook another positive aspect of shrimp farms. They give marginal communities in poor countries a chance to participate in the global economy by producing something that can be sold to Western consumers. In the tiny African country of Eritrea, for example, a group of Americans has been working with local people to create a profitable, self-sustaining and environmentally-friendly aquaculture center. This venture is called Sea Forests Eritrea. Despite difficulties due to political turbulence, Sea Forests’ organizers aim to duplicate this initial farm "many times up and down the coast of the Red Sea sharing this development with other nations in the region and providing a dependable source of food for all the people in the region."

If environmentalists take a longer-term view, they may find much to cheer about in the spread of Sea Forest-style shrimp farming — and the economic growth it fosters — around the world. As Berkeley Professor of Energy and Resources Jack Hollander argues in his book The Real Environmental Crisis, economic growth and affluence are good for the environment. "In my judgment, affluence does not inevitably foster environmental degradation," he writes. "Rather, affluence fosters environmentalism. As people become more affluent, most become increasingly sensitive to the health and beauty of their environment." Economic growth by itself is not enough to engineer this shift in attitude, according to Hollander — democracy and rule of law are also important parts of the equation, because these institutions allow people to express their preferences for a clean environment.

Hollander is right. Concern for the environment won’t catch on in the Third World until a large middle class develops which can demand stronger environmental protections. The emergence of this middle class requires the development of successful industries and businesses. Shrimp farming for export to the West represents one way for people in poor countries to build wealth and start themselves on the road to prosperity. So dig into that shrimp with gusto!