Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Fish You Just Ate May Be More of a Globetrotter Than You Are

David Steen
This post is a contribution from David Steen. David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his M.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.

The Fish You Just Ate May Be More of a Globetrotter Than You Are

Seafood is an integral component of southern culture, perhaps best exemplified by the platters of fried catfish on the menu in every hole in the wall restaurant from Brunswick, Georgia to Lake Charles, Louisiana.  And the Gulf of Mexico is renowned for its appetizing saltwater bounties, oil spill notwithstanding.  So, when I had a guest from out of town visit me in the Florida Panhandle, I was eager to show off all the region had to offer; almost immediately we headed to a local restaurant touting all-you-can-eat seafood.

    Considering my passion for both eating everything I can and local seafood, I didn’t think I had much need for a menu.  Almost as an afterthought, I asked the waitress what kind of fish I could expect to be piled in front of me, my head filled with fantasies of farmed channel catfish or perhaps, if I was lucky, some mackerel or snapper from the seas just to the south.  To my surprise, she didn’t know.  Briefly stepping away to yell into the kitchen, she returned with the verdict…Swai.


    As a vertebrate biologist, it’s not often I’m confronted with an animal I’ve never heard of, let alone when I’m sitting at the dinner table about to eat one.

    “And what is Swai?” I politely inquired.

    “It’s like a catfish, they farm it in Asia.”

    As I looked at the waitress and digested this new information, my eyes drifted around the restaurant, from the plastic crabs and fishing nets adorning the walls to the chalk boards advertising the price of Gulf shrimp and crawfish.  You mean to tell me, I thought to myself, this restaurant, named after a local seaside town, was shipping in something “like” a catfish from halfway across the world?  It turned out I would need that menu after all.

    When catfish was suggested as a potential alternative, I skeptically asked where it had originated; I was reassured when the waitress informed me it came from right here in Florida.  I’m happy to tell you it was delicious.

    Back at home, I decided to look into the curious case of Swai and spent some time researching the animal on the internet.  I learned this type of catfish, along with the closely related Basa, is native to a couple major rivers and their tributaries within southeastern Asia.  An important food source, the species is heavily farmed in ponds, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam.  Produced in mass quantities, the species represents a cheap source of fish, and that’s the reason it’s starting to show up in American markets.

    Catfish farmers in the United States have known about this trend for some time now.  Seeing their potential livelihood threatened by an inexpensive alternative, the catfish industry lobbied lawmakers for new regulations on the influx of Asian fish.  As a result of their efforts, it is now illegal for restaurants to sell Swai or Basa and call it catfish.  But they can still call it the Catch of the Day, feature it in their Fisherman’s Platter, or include it any other vaguely labeled dish. 

   Restaurateurs have a lot of freedom when writing the menu; along with fish distributors, they have been known to get creative in describing a particular species to make it sound more appetizing.  For example, the Patagonian Toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides, is marketed in the United States as Chilean Sea Bass.  Which would you rather order, a Toothfish or a Sea Bass?

    I have no issue with eating Swai or Basa in general, although there are some concerns about how these fish are raised and questions regarding whether there may be health issues related to the associated farming practices; but I am an advocate for shopping locally.  Why ship anything across the planet, whether it’s a pair of pants or tonight’s dinner, when you can buy it next door?

(Courtesy of D. Steen)
    The next week, at another seafood restaurant, I was once again confronted with a dilemma.  The waves of the Gulf of Mexico lapped against the deck of the waterfront restaurant as both fishing and sightseeing boats motored by.  I took deep breaths of salt air between swigs from my beer as I watched the sunset.  It was the classic seaside scene.

    Perhaps it was the atmosphere, perhaps it was the beer, but it wasn’t until my Fisherman’s Platter arrived before I thought to ask what kind of fried filet would grace my plate.

    This waitress was better prepared, “Panaceas”. 

    Well, I wasn’t naïve about the name of this fish.  I knew it was a made-up label to make whatever I was really eating sound more palatable; it’s the same word we use to describe something that will solve all of our problems (Panacea is also the Greek goddess of healing).  But, at least it wasn’t Swai, I told myself.  And, I could reach out and touch the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico from my table, what were the chances of eating a fish fillet that had been frozen and shipped thousands of miles before finally reaching my plate?  Surrounded by shrimp, scallops and French fries, I must confess to a moment of willful ignorance so I could enjoy the meal before me (it was fantastic).

    Something nagged at me though.  Back home, I returned to the internet to determine what kind of fish was being sold as Panaceas.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find any relevant hits.  On a hunch, I Googled Swai again for a closer look.  Realization slowly dawned over me as I slapped my forehead.  Both Swai and Basa are within the same genus, Pangasius.

    Want to learn the socioeconomic, human health, and environmental costs of the seafood you buy?  Check out the Smart Seafood Guide offered by the Food & Water Watch.  The Monterey Aquarium also offers handy pocket guides that recommend responsible seafood choices.  Live in Canada?  There's a guide for you too.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Heart of Palm

What most of us know as ‘heart of palm’ are these cans of white stalks. Often prepared for salads, these vegetables have made their way on to plates all over the world. For most of us, the origin of these unique vegetables is a mystery.  At least, it was to me before I first traveled to Costa Rica.  Little did I know, after only few months into my journey, I would be devising a research project based on this unique food.

You can find fresh hearts of palm in the tropics.  As the name suggests, this delicacy comes from the inside of a palm tree stem. What may come to mind is a picturesque sunset with a few tropical coconut palms on the horizon, but the majority of heart of palm you’ll find in the grocery store is produced from a different palm species, the only one that is cultivated - the peach palm.  Compared to the emblematic coconut palm, the peach palm stem is smaller and produces tiny fruits.  Peach palm fruits (or pejibaje in Spanish) are edible and delicious! Their flavour is difficult to describe, slightly reminiscent of a butternut squash but much richer and with a fibrous texture.

Peach Palm Fruits
(photo courtesy of C. Manchego)

Peach palm is found all over Latin America, but North America imports this product primarily from farms in Ecuador. Peach palm plantations look a lot like tree farms, or rows of cultivated plants. Peach palm trees grow surprisingly quickly.  It is estimated that in one year (give or take a few months) one stem will be ready to eat.

Still, how do you go from palm tree to the small white stalk on your plate?

Like any canned vegetable, peach palm processing has multiple steps. First, the stem is cut, sliced open, and its ‘heart’ is removed from the tip of the stem.  Although canned palm hearts are then processed and preserved, many people will eat the heart of palm raw freshly cut from the stem! Here is a quick video of how cultivated palm trees are processed:

One peach palm plant produces multiple stems. Confusing, I know, but it just means that from one palm seed you can get many trees growing in one clump. This is ideal species for palm farming because you can obtain numerous hearts of palm from a single palm plant.

What about all the other palms? 

Interestingly, peach palms, along with many other palms, have been harvested for food in the tropics for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.  However, the idea of a palm at a North American dinner table is a relatively recent phenomenon, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that a few species entered into the international market. 

Although only a few palm species make it into the international market, there are approximately 2500 species of palms in the world, and all of them are likely to have ‘hearts’. Here is one example of a heart of palm harvested from the cloud forests of central Costa Rica. This particular species is valued by many Costa Ricans for its ‘bitter’ taste.  Some also report it for medicinal properties.

Cloud Forest Palm > 2000 masl (Geonoma edulis)

Harvested Palm Stem

Palm Hearts (removed from the tip of the stem)

Although the majority of the 2500 palm species are not harvested, more than 10 non-cultivated species are harvested in Costa Rica alone. Although my uncle thinks that the world already has one too many ‘palm-ologists’, I think this group of plants is ripe for further study. My experience with these diverse plants has opened my eyes to the importance of unique forest species to the daily lives of many people. I suppose palm-ology is one of the motivations for starting this blog and it has influenced the research I am involved in now. In part II, I’ll share my experiences with Costa Ricans who harvest some of the less well-known and harder to find species of palms.


Mora-Urpí, J. 2002. Presente y futuro del palmito en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 26(2): 95-100.

Sylvester, O. and Avalos, G. 2009. Illegal palm heart (Geonoma edulis) harvest in Costa Rican national parks: patterns of consumption and extraction. Economic Botany 63(2): 179-189.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Scoop On North America’s Leading Coffee Brands

Recently I was asked about some of the leading brands of coffees available in North American markets.  Two questions in particular were raised:

1)  Do these brands fit the ‘sustainable’ mold?


2)  If a large company claims to use Fair Trade beans, what does that mean? And, how can you distinguish this coffee from all of their other products?

In my first coffee blog, I provided the basics on sustainability labels.  The motivations behind our interest in these labels may vary. Some of us may prefer to support environmentally or socially ethical certifications or both.  Some may choose to buy coffee with no certifications in hopes of supporting local and smaller disadvantaged farmers, while others may take it one step further and eliminate coffee entirely from their routines because there are no ‘locally grown’ options where they live.  Although diverse coffee choices do exist if we look hard enough, the majority of coffee available to us is industrially produced with no certifications related to environmental or social farming conditions.   

To my knowledge, there are few certified sustainability standards associated with coffee sold by the four multinational companies dominating the North American coffee markets (click here for a critique on ‘when birders* drink Folgers’).  

Multinational corporations are experts in driving market prices down. This means ecologically and socially sustainable farming practices are not a likely a priority when large corporations purchase coffee beans.  The only way these companies can make the profits they seek is by purchasing coffee at low prices. And if the cost of coffee is low, this generally means that minimum effort is put into maintaining a high quality product and environmental standards are not a high-priority (Frontline provides a good background on the 'coffee crisis').  When world coffee prices plummet, farmers globally may suffer wage cuts, driving them to abandon their coffee plants and replace them with economically viable crops (e.g., such as the environmentally unfriendly sugarcane). I know many former coffee farmers in Costa Rica who have switched crops because they could no longer make a living producing high quality shade-grown coffee. By not paying attention to the products we buy, we may be unwittingly playing a part in this race for low prices. As a consequence, we neglect important issues, such as maintaining coffee farmers’ livelihoods or supporting environmentally friendly farming.

Back to the original questions. At least one of the major coffee brands produces a Fair Trade certified coffee. One of the benefits of Fair Trade is that it guarantees farmers are paid a minimum price for their coffee. This price, to some degree, is independent from market fluctuations. 

To answer the second question, if coffee is 100% certified as Fair Trade, it will be labeled on the package.  Commonly, you will find the logo (on the right) but different companies produce different labels depending on the product and the region of the world.  Because large companies may produce many different brands of coffee with varying certifications (if any), if you are looking for Fair Trade, makes sure the label says so.

My Two Cents:

Even if large companies produce one or a few Fair Trade products, in my opinion purchasing these ‘popular’ coffee brands is still supporting the practices of multinational market-driven corporations.  These same corporations are instrumental in creating social inequities that Fair Trade and other socially conscious choices attempt to counteract.  So, if you are set on drinking these major coffee brands then the best choice would be a Fair Trade option. However, there are other options out there. I have previously suggested a couple found in my neck of the woods. At first it may seem like a lot of work for us to weed through coffee aisles or shops in our quest to make socially and environmentally conscious choices.  However, as we do so we become better informed about how our eating choices influence the environment that we, and especially coffee farmers, depend upon.

For more information on coffee giants check out:


Bacon, C. 2005. Confronting the coffee crisis: can fair trade, organic, and specialty coffees reduce small-scale farmer vulnerability in northern Nicaragua. World Development 33(3): 497-511. 

Coffee photo courtesy of David Minor.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Honey versus Sugar: What is More Environmentally Friendly?

This summer I decided to cook, as much as possible, with ingredients provided by local farmers. This goal required replacing some ingredients I have long treated as cooking staples. One of those is sugar. By sugar I mean ‘cane sugar’, which you might know as: granulated sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, or raw cane sugar, among other names. Although there are many alternatives to cane sugar, honey is a sure-fire find at North American farmers markets. This begs the question, how do the environmental impacts compare between sugar and honey production?
The Basics:
Honey available for purchase at the store or market is produced by bees.  These insects make honey after gathering flower nectar.
Cane sugar is produced from a large tropical grass called sugarcane.  This is the same plant that is used to produce molasses, rum, ethanol, and cachaça.

Environmental Costs of Production:
1) Travel Costs: Sugar out-travels honey. Although sugar may be refined in North America, we import most of our sugar from the tropics, primarily South and Central America, Australia, and the Caribbean (some exceptions may occur in the southern United States). Increased travel means increased energy expenditure, in particular fossil fuels. Although you’d have to ask your local farmer for information specific to you, the honey I purchased this week travelled only about 8 kilometers (5 miles). For those of you who can’t find a local honey farmer, make sure to check the label of the honey you purchase at the grocery store.  Most store-bought honey is a mixture of honey from many different countries and may have traveled more than you have!
2) Farming: Sugar production is labor intensive and sugarcane fields are a very inefficient way of using the tropical landscape. Sugarcane demands more pesticides, fertilizers and, most importantly, more water than most other crops. For example, in India’s Mararashtra State, sugarcane is cultivated on only 3% of the land but consumes 80% of the irrigation water used for all crops combined (Shiva 2002). And, India is one of the world’s largest producers of sugar. Farming local honey, on the other hand, requires little space and is also beneficial for surrounding ecosystems.  Honey is either a byproduct of our cultivated crops or comes from unmanaged wildflowers. For example, California almonds depend strictly on bees for pollination.  Interestingly, many Canadian farmers use bees that collect honey from alfalfa or clover plants. Because these wildflowers are also natural soil fertilizers, this means honey production can reduce the need for conventional fertilizers (which are derived from fossil-fuels). 
So far the score is Honey 2, Sugar 0.

3) Processing: Honey has no refining step. It is simply spun out of the frames on your right and then bottled. In comparison, sugarcane is cut (often manually), and transported to an extractor where sugar juice is squeezed out of the plant. At this point it goes through multiple refining steps, such as evaporation, boiling, bleaching (to get white sugar) etc. This processing requires large amounts of heated water and fossil fuels. This means the white granulated sugar on your table has probably originated in a farm in the south - such as Brazil or Cuba – has been sprayed with pesticides, drenched in water, harvested and processed (more water and fuel) and has travelled to a refinery in North America where it is processed again and bleached. All of this energy loss, and I haven’t yet touched upon where all the waste goes during this whole process. 

A superficial look at the environmental impacts of sweeteners shows that honey beats sugar hands down. In my quest to make the switch, I am pleased to report that there have been no failed recipes by replacing sugar with honey. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so my rule of thumb in cooking is to use half as much honey as you would sugar.
I acknowledge that honey is more expensive than refined sugar. But, if it is in your budget, I think it is well worth it to support talented farmers such as Ben, the 82 years-young Beekeeper that produced the honey I purchased last week. By buying local honey, not only are you supporting the few people dedicated to working with these amazing insects, you are also conserving water, reducing CO2 emissions, and preventing more pesticide use and land-clearing in the tropics.

This blog is only just the beginning of many questions related to sweeteners. I have only touched on the social, environmental, and health benefits of beekeeping or the reality of sugarcane expansion in the tropics. Also, I hope to provide some tips from my Winnipeg family, who were avid bee farmers. By the end, some of you may even be motivated to integrate bees into your farms or gardens!

From my time spent in Costa Rica, I must admit I have more experience talking about production of sugar from sugarcane than I do with honey. Although I’ve learned a great deal in my recent switch to local honey, I do welcome any additional comments!

Shiva, V. 2002. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. South End Press, Cambridge, MA. Pp. 10.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Fair Trade, Organic, and Shade-Grown Coffee: What Do They All Mean?

For those of you who know how good Costa Rican coffee can be, it will be no surprise that upon moving to Costa Rica, ‘hora de café’ became an irreplaceable part of my everyday routine. Before this, I was not a coffee drinker and had no idea of how many choices I faced when trying to find the ‘right’ cup of coffee. Fortunately my fieldwork within rural Costa Rica allowed me to visit a few farms and ask around for myself. 

So, what does it mean to drink a cup of Fair Trade, organic, or shade-grown coffee?

The answers to these questions inevitably vary from place to place and may depend on whom you ask. In this post, my goal is to elaborate on some of the basic facts about what these labels mean for consumers, farmers, and environments alike in the context of my experience in Costa Rica.

The Basics:

Certified Organic Coffee

Organic certification regulations vary from region to region.  Attention to the wording (“certified organic” versus “organic”) will help you look up the specific regulations for your country. Generally speaking, organic coffee certification means farmers do not use synthetic chemicals (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). To become certified as an organic farm, a farmer must maintain cropland chemical free for a number of years (often three or more). Also, routine inspections by independent third parties are continually required.

Although the idea of buying organic is increasingly popular among consumers, it is a market that few small-scale coffee farmers manage to enter. It costs money for a conventional farm to transition to one that is certified as organic. Often small-scale coffee farmers do not have the resources to forego profits for an extended period of time to make this transition. Furthermore, third party inspections can cost from $300 to $500 per day, plus the transportation costs of bringing an inspector to a farm.

Shade-Grown Coffee

Coffee plants (on the right) are mid-size shrubs that are found to produce superior quality beans when grown in the shade. This is because shade beans take longer to ripen and this processes contributes to more complex coffee flavours. Shade is also an added bonus for anyone who is picking coffee beans, done by hand on small-scale farms.  Because coffee farmers are only paid for their ripe fruits, picking the right beans takes skill and potentially many hours under the hot sun. 
Certification as ‘shade-grown’ also appeals to consumers for environmental reasons. Shade-grown farming is often considered better at maintaining increased biodiversity, as compared to industrial agriculture. Since coffee plants are small understory shrubs, they can be intercropped with diverse tropical flora or other cultivated plant species. This diversity may range from ‘native’ tropical trees (often from the bean family) or other foods such as sugar cane.

As you can see, different strategies of intercropping with shade trees can produce very different outcomes, and all shade is not equal! On one extreme you may find coffee in a diverse forested landscape. Coffee would then be part of a multi-cropping production system and may be shaded with many native forest plants, providing from 70 to 100% shade.  The other extreme is found in 'shaded monocultures'. There you would find dense rows of coffee plants interspersed with one or two species of shade trees providing approximately 10-30% shade.  Therefore, unless the term shade-grown is accompanied by a more detailed description, you can’t be sure you are not buying coffee from only a slightly-shaded monoculture.

There are also many specialty certifications, such as 'Bird-Friendly', that aim to support farms with more than just ‘shade’. These certifications require shade-grown coffee to be located along with at least 10 other woody plant species (to ensure greater diversity) and they require some form of organic standards.

Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade coffee differs from the above two options because it emerged as part of a shift in thinking towards more socially conscious consumption (‘trade not aid’). Fair Trade certification maintains the strongest social justice standards within major coffee certification strategies while supporting environmentally sustainable agriculture. Fair Trade certification means coffee production must be small–scale, the trade benefits must be shared among farmers, and pesticides and GMOs are banned. Fair Trade attempts to build alternative trade networks that promote safe working conditions, guarantee a payment of minimum prices, provide premiums for social and environmental development (including support for organic and shade-grown initiatives), and support long-term trading relationships.

Does Fair Trade guarantee coffee is shade-grown or organic?

No.  However, many Fair Trade coffees are accompanied by organic as well as other specialty certifications, such as shade-grown or bird-friendly (e.g., Kicking Horse CoffeeHigher Ground Coffee).  It is important to remember that many small-scale coffee growers face significant challenges when attempting to transform their farms to meet strict organic or specialty certification standards. One of the benefits of Fair Trade is that it can provide an opportunity for small-scale or marginalized farmers to enter alternative markets. For example, Fair Trade farmers are guaranteed ‘development premiums’, or support dedicated to locally relevant social or environmental programs. This support can be used in the transition to more environmentally conscious farming practices.


Are these the only options for the conscious consumer?

No.  Many coffee roasters feel these certification systems lack transparency as well as perpetuate social inequalities (marginalizing many small independent farmers). These baristas prefer to establish personal relationships with coffee growers who may maintain crops that would qualify as organic and/or shade-grown but who chose not to enter into global certification markets. These options may not be advertised at your local coffee shop and will require asking a few questions about who grows the coffee and how it is produced. Upon putting this blog together, I took my own advice. On a recent trip to Athens, Georgia, I was surprised to find that the first coffee shop I entered was well-informed about these challenges. The barista told me that they sell coffee from one small farm in Antioquia, Colombia. This choice was intended to support those farmers with limited ability to enter the third party certification markets.

I hope this provides an overview of what our choices mean when supporting different coffee producers and companies alike. I’d be happy to receive any other suggestions related to socially and environmentally conscious coffee choices.


Valkila J. and N. Nygren. 2010. Impacts of fair trade certification on coffee farmers, cooperatives, and laborers in Nicaragua. Agriculture and Human Values 27: 321-333.

Raynolds, L. T. 2000. Re-embedding global agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values 17: 297-309.