It seemed like the entire Yale population descended upon Commons last Thursday to witness the final round of Yale’s Iron Chef competition. As I waited in the mile-long line for food, I heard a student announce the start of the competition over the commotion. He presented a few details about the Alaskan king crab, the special ingredient chosen for this year’s Final Cut. He described its culinary merits, such as its taste and sustainability, as well as an evidently dismissible drawback — the fact that crab fishing results in the death of about one Alaskan fisherman each week. As the cooking commenced, crab meat was successfully transformed into spring rolls, ravioli, patties and foam as the audience excitedly cheered the contenders on. By the end of the evening, Silliman (no surprise there) was proclaimed the Iron Chef Champion, based on the criteria of sustainability, presentation and taste.
It is noteworthy that “sustainability” was included as a main criterion for selecting this year’s ingredient and winner, particularly since Iron Chef is such a popular event on campus. This commitment to sustainability demonstrates that, when it comes to food, we as a campus community care about more than just satisfying our taste buds. We realize that our consumption decisions affect the world outside Commons, and that we have a duty to investigate how food is produced before we decide what to eat.
Unfortunately, our appreciation for sustainability can be as limiting as it is empowering. We seem to view labels such as “sustainable,” “green” and “eco-friendly” as substitions for a real process of investigation. We read these labels and assume that it is fine to stop questioning and to start consuming. But what does “sustainability” really mean? Is it the only criterion we should look to when judging whether or not to eat the food product at hand? What else is at stake that this reassuring label fails to address?
Let’s look closer at the Alaskan king crab. It is sustainably produced, which means the oceans aren’t about to run out of it any time soon. We could end our inquiry at that and feel confident in our decision to eat these crabs and support the industry. The label of sustainability, however, turns a blind eye to the most obvious victims of the industry: the crabs themselves, who are individual creatures and not just “resources.” There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that crustaceans, just like other animals, feel pain and stress, and that they do, in fact, have the capacity to suffer. These findings raise uncomfortable questions about the morality of the routine practices we subject crustaceans to, such as breaking off their limbs and boiling them alive, practices that we now know cause serious suffering for these creatures.
The announcer at Iron Chef also gave us another reason to believe that perhaps the concept of sustainability does not capture the full essence of what’s really going on. It completely fails to convey to us that Alaskan king crab fishing has been repeatedly cited as the most dangerous occupation in the United States, with a fatality rate of over 300 per 100,000 fishermen. These fishermen die from myriad causes, such as drowning, hypothermia and being crushed by heavy equipment as they work to procure Alaskan king crabs for a booming international market.
In the case of the Alaskan king crab, then, it seems that sustainability is inadequate as an all-encompassing measure of the amount of harm caused by a food product, as it has little to say about the cruelty and suffering — of both animals and humans — for which this industry is responsible. If we want to continue to unquestioningly sanction the consumption of these crabs, or of any number of other food items predicated upon the suffering and misery of living beings, we are going to have to explain to ourselves why this suffering does not influence our eating habits, when other considerations such as environmental sustainability clearly do.
While I am not at all questioning the importance of sustainability as a consideration in deciding which foods to consume, I do question our unwavering reliance upon it. As caring and well informed consumers with a wealth of information at our fingertips, I think we have a duty to read beyond the labels and make intelligent, compassionate choices about the food we eat. Only then will we be able to maximize our ability to make a positive impact each time we sit down for a meal.
Shebani Rao is a junior in Silliman College.