Surf (worse than) Turf?

When it comes to dietary carbon, beef is public enemy one. Beef worse than pork, worse than chicken—with regard to carbon intensiveness—ask any environmentalist. But beef many not necessarily be the worst offender. As is always the case, context matters: the who/what/where and how of food production. In this case, the facts may surprise you. Across the world, in every ocean, it’s the humble shrimp that’s a veritable carbon menace!

Shrimp! More carbon costly than steak? It’s up there—and the details are hair-raising.

While shrimp neither consume nor individually produce a large amount of carbon (in the manner of livestock) it’s the circumstances they’re raised in that’s causing the problem. 

Of all the shrimp that end up as food, more than half begin in an aqua-farm. To facilitate aquaculture, coastal sites must first be drained and exfoliated of mangrove trees in a process more damaging even than the felling of forests for cow pasture! By a wide margin the most impactful aspect of beef production is the forested/arable land lost to grazing space, yet according to the Center for International Forestry Research the production of farmed shrimp produces four times as much carbon than beef (pound-for-pound)! According to The Economist, a “surf-and-turf” dinner requires roughly the carbon equivalent of a car ride from New York City to Los Angeles. Often imagined as a “luxury” dish, it’s true expense is staggering. 

The “cost” of shrimp however doesn’t end there. Nearly 90% of farmed shrimp comes from outside the U.S., much of that from countries with low-to-no environmental standards. In South East Asia, commercial farmers churn through one lake after another until they are literally septic. The very process of aquatic deforestation leaves low-land regions vulnerable to coastal flooding. The option too of “wild caught” shrimp is fraught with nasty complications–more on this later.

If it’s true that the dangers of beef consumption are underestimated by the general public, then the danger of shrimp is virtually unknown, with global consumption ticking up 5% annually, shrimp alone are a huge problem.

All menu items containing shrimp, crab, or lobster are automatically scored as “Red” on our Carbon Score Indices. As always, it isn’t a question of abstention but of intelligent, mindful consumption. 

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