From China, The Future of Fish

Meet the Chinese tilapia, a bland food product that grows fast and sells cheap. Environmentalists hate it, but Americans keep ordering more.

By Bruce Einhorn

(Fixes reference to U.S. food-service market in the 27th paragraph.)

At the end of a wooden pier, a squat red machine the size of a dishwasher hums along with the din of nearby cicadas. The fish-feeder is tossing grain pellets into one of Chen Haiping’s nine fish ponds, each as long as a football field, in the town of Shuixi, in China’s Guangdong province. It’s breakfast time, and thousands of tilapia are thrashing their tails and sticking their mouths into the air to get some of the soy-and-corn mixture. Chen, a 32-year-old former duck farmer with a wispy mustache, has been running this farm for eight years.

Before the tilapia, these ponds were filled with shrimp, which the Chinese like. They aren’t big fans of tilapia, a foreign fish; the name in Chinese,luofeiyu, refers to tilapia’s origins in Africa. It doesn’t have much flavor, and it doesn’t grow big enough to put in the middle of the table at a family meal. Americans, however, can’t get enough of Chinese-raised tilapia, so tilapia it is. The fish, Chen notes, are hardier and don’t require as much work. “Shrimp can die much more easily,” says Chen, who wears a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect himself from the 95-degree heat.

Despite environmental warnings about Chinese-raised tilapia from watchdog groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which publishes an influential best choices/avoid list of seafood and rates Chinese-raised tilapia as “avoid,” U.S. consumption keeps rising. In 2009 the U.S. imported 404 million pounds of tilapia, up from 298 million in 2005. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) imports nearly 200 shipping containers, or 8.8 million pounds, every month, although they will not say how much comes from China. (The company declined to comment.) Domestic fish farmers can’t come close to meeting demand. Although there are tilapia farms in the U.S., the fish does better in tropical climates, so most of it comes from Asia or Latin America.

Read more of this post

%d bloggers like this: