Is Eating Kosher Seafood Better for the Environment?

In some ways, absolutely yes. That's the conclusion reached by researchers from NOAA and California State University, Channel Islands. And it mostly has to do with the distance that seafood travels from the ocean to your plate.

Foods are now covered in all kinds of labels. Free range, organic, GMO-free, and all the rest. But foods have been labeled according to the criteria of kosher or halal for a lot longer. Rather than addressing sustainability, conservation, or ethical issues, these labels derive from religious rules that primarily have to do with the way food is prepared and handled, as well as which species are allowed to be eaten in the first place.

At Conservation Magazine, Dave Levitan writes,

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."

What's good for atmospheric carbon levels, though, isn't necessarily good for the health of fisheries. Because there is such a strong emphasis on large fish like tuna and salmon combined with and a ban on shellfish, kosher seafood tends to come from higher levels in the food chain. And putting too much stress on a salmon or tuna fishery has far more wide-ranging consequences, from an ecological perspective, than overfishing clams or shrimp.

While eating only kosher seafood won't address all conservation or sustainability related issues, it represents a possible way in which scientific and religious leaders can work together in promoting environmental concerns. "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," the researchers say.

Read more at Conservation Magazine.

Header image: Helen Cook/Wikimedia Commons.