Is kosher seafood an accidental eco-label?

Eco-labeling, from Fair Trade to Organic and beyond, has proliferated rapidly in recent years. Seafood is a particularly interesting arena for this type of labeling: many markets now drop different types of fish into categories like “good” or “avoid” based on the supposed sustainability of the fishery. Though there have been questions whether the labels are truly meaningful (not to mention questions of whether the seafood you’re buying is actually the animal it purports to be), it suggests people are increasingly waking up to the problems confronting fisheries around the world. Another set of labeling systems, meanwhile, don’t have environmental sustainability drivers at their root at all: Kosher and halal foods, among other religious labeling schemes, are based on complicated and thorough requirements for food production and handling. The question is, do those rules and regulations amount to anything when it comes to the environmental and sustainability issues that underlie the secular “avoid” label you see at Whole Foods?

A research group from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and California State University Channel Islands surveyed almost 4,500 different seafood items at markets and restaurants around three southern California counties in order to find out. They published the results in the journal Ecology and Society.

Biblical kosher rules dictate that anything eaten from the sea must have fins and scales, among other things. That eliminates shrimp and octopus and clams, and puts a big emphasis on species like salmon and tuna. This likely played a big role in the group’s first finding, that kosher seafood in both markets and restaurants had a substantially reduced carbon footprint based on transportation compared with non-kosher items. The average kosher seafood product traveled about 2,000 kilometers (about 1,242 miles) less to get to a supermarket than non-kosher items did, a highly statistically significant difference. That meant it only needed about 78 percent of the energy required for non-kosher seafood, which obviously would improve the carbon footprint quite a bit.

The group also compared kosher seafood items to Seafood Watch’s “avoid,” “good,” and “best” labels. They found that about twice as many kosher items fell into that “best” category compared with non-kosher seafood. Interestingly though, that pattern only existed at supermarkets; at restaurants, it was actually reversed. The differences in transportation carbon footprint could be eliminated when one randomly chooses a “best” product and compares it to a randomly chosen kosher product. In other words, going kosher was roughly equivalent to going Seafood Watch “best.”

Another measure that muddies the waters a bit further was that of trophic level, essentially the spot an animal sits on the food chain. Kosher seafood items tended to have higher trophic levels, and higher-level predators can have bigger effects on ecosystems when they are overfished. This result is likely again related to the ban on shrimp—low trophic level—and the emphasis on salmon—high trophic level.

The authors noted that this study is of course limited by geography, in that they only sampled in one area and transportation played a big role in the results. The fact that most shrimp comes to the U.S. from Asia, while most salmon comes a shorter distance from Alaska, may have somewhat smoothed out the biases due to geography.

So it seems that eating seafood marked kosher will get one a decent way toward eating sustainably, though not quite all the way. And the message here is more than just a comparison between varying labeling systems. “Some theologians have argued that reframing and reinvigorating traditional practices can be an important component of natural resource management,” the authors wrote. “Even though the moral underpinnings of conservation and religion can be very different, careful scientific attention to the environmental costs and benefits of traditional foodways offers an important entry point for engagement with cultural practices and belief systems.” – Dave Levitan | July 22 2014

Source: Levin PS, Azose J, Anderson S (2014). Biblical influences on conservation: an examination of the apparent sustainability of kosher seafood, Ecology and Society, 19 (2) 55. DOI: 10.5751/ES-06524-190255

Image:, Brent Hofacker