The popularity of recent movements such as Veganuary and Meat Free Mondays in the UK show that the traditional meat-and-two-veg dinner may be on its way out. More and more people are deciding for themselves that eating meat every day just does not have a place in a sustainable food future.
To encourage people away from a diet reliant on meat, the United Nations is championing edible insects as a viable sustainable source of valuable nutrients (See Nasi Biryani’s post for more discussion on insects as food). Indeed, eating insects is already a common practice in many parts of the world, but it is slower to catch on in the UK, most likely because of people’s squeamishness and prejudices about creepy crawlies. Mussels and oysters, on the other hand, already enjoy a respectable reputation as a food in coastal areas around the world.
Aquaculture (farming) of the bivalve molluscs mussels and oysters does not require any input of consumables such as feed or fertilizer, and so does not disrupt the marine ecology or pollute the water. The majority of mussels produced for food are grown on ropes or rafts which are suspended in the water, and are lifted out once the mussels have grown big enough. Compared to industrial fishing, which results in the killing and wasting of enormous amounts of bycatch as well as damage to systems such as coral reef, harvesting rope-farmed mussels does not disturb the seabed or trap other marine animals.
Mussels feed on microorganisms such as phytoplankton, cleaning the water as they go. Each individual mussel filters and cleans a whole bathtub full of sea water per day! As filter feeders, mussels are prone to accumulating toxins within their flesh, and their population will rapidly drop if the water quality is not suitable. As such, any waters where mussels are farmed as food must be frequently tested to meet strict standards of purity. If an area of water does not meet the standard then mussels may not be sold from the area until further notice. As such, a thriving mussel industry almost guarantees that local sewage works and industrial plants will not get away with dumping polluted waters into the sea.
Similarly, oysters and mussels can actually be used to improve the quality of the water following pollution and degradation of the marine area, by cleaning the water and providing habitat for other marine life. This has been very successful and well-documented in the Chesapeake Bay area in the USA.
A big push factor away from a meat diet for many people is the ethics: the modern meat industry causes suffering and pain to the animals involved. Is the same true for mussel farms? There is a growing number of vegans and vegetarians who are in favour of eating mussels and oysters. The anatomy of a mussel is fairly simple: they have no brain and have just a fairly basic nerve structure. They also have extremely limited motility (the ability to move spontaneously), and apparently no social capacity. These factors strongly imply that the mussel is not sentient, in that it does not feel pain. The positive environmental benefits of cultivating mussels as outlined above add to the ethical case for replacing meat with mussels.
Mussels are wonderfully nutritious and are rich in nutrients that are particularly difficult to obtain from a plant-based diet: B12, zinc, iron, and selenium, making them an ideal alternative food to meat and a valuable addition to a sustainable diet. Below are the nutritional tables for beef and mussels, with the afore mentioned nutrients highlighted for easy comparison: (see source here)
Since mussels are often sold live, there is little disposable packaging involved, except maybe a plastic carrier bag to take them home in. This is a important point compared to the industrial meat industry where products are often sold in polystyrene trays. But what about all those shells? There are lots of innovative and sustainable uses for mussel and oyster shells. Ground to a powder, their high calcium content means they can be used as a cement filler. There are studies showing that the powder can be dispersed in polluted sea areas to absorb pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus. They are also commonly put back into the sea to provide a natural habitat for other marine life.
The initial set-up costs of a mussel farm are very low compared to traditional meat industries. There are no consumables, the main equipment needed is rope and frames or rafts to suspend them in the water. This means that the cultivation of mussels is a good avenue for small family businesses and can provide local employment in coastal regions.
Mussels are usually sold alive kept on ice, since once they die they go off very quickly. Unprocessed, they are not ideal for export and are more popularly bought and consumed locally to the aquaculture region. This supports local businesses as well as local environmental health.
As well as being incredibly healthy, ecologically and economically sustainable, bivalve molluscs are really tasty! Here are some delicious recipes to suit a range of culinary palates from around the world:
French: Moules Mariniere
British: Cider Mussels
Thai: Red curry mussels
Taiwan: Oyster omlette