Monday, November 9, 2009

Not You Too Alton Brown!

Out of the somewhat little television I watch, Good Eats is one of my favorite shows. It is, in fact, the only cooking show I am willing to watch. The best way to describe it, it seems, is Bill Nye the Science Guy and cooking combined into one series.

It dismayed me greatly, however, to hear Alton Brown, the host, advocate a very destructive position in the name of protecting culinary options. Last Monday's episode was about sustainable fishing: how some species were in danger of going extinct due to overfishing and what alternative species people should eat instead. In the middle of the episode he stated that the solution to the problem of overfishing, and if I recall correctly he said it was the only solution, is for there to be government regulations imposed on fisheries.

What could go wrong? You know, other than the fact that unqualified and untrained politicians, in such a scenario, would be set forth to regulate an industry they may know nothing about, have not the time nor ability to learn anything about, would lack the proper knowledge to judge which authorities to delegate authority to, and would immorally violate the rights of fisheries by using threats of physical force to impose fishing quotas (unless they prohibit fishing altogether)?

Considering his celebrity status (he does have the prime time slot on Food Network), Mr. Brown could end up really hurting his way of living since interested cooks are more apt to listen to him.

To my even greater dismay there seems to be no formal way to contact Mr. Brown, whether by e-mail or postal mail. There is only a media contact on his website, nothing on, and my e-mail to Food Network went unacknowledged. I will instead have to satisfy myself with commenting here. (This prompts the question: with no obvious formal way to contact him, how is it that Mr. Brown speaks time to time of receiving e-mail from his fans?)

There are two issues to consider: the problem of advocating government regulations and alternative solutions.

* * * * *

1.) The problem: Aside from the obvious problem of incompetent politicians having authority over something that have little to no knowledge of, the influence of environmentalism in politics in the present age would make it feasible for legislation prohibiting fishing altogether to get passed under the justification that it is protecting the environment. Fishing counts as man utilizing/altering/exploiting his surroundings, which environmentalism opposes and environmentalists would (or at least should, according to their ideology) advocate prohibiting. In an effort to protect certain species of fish so that we may continue eating them Mr. Brown could accidentally contribute to such fish being forcefully taken off our plates.

Also, government regulation as such is just plain immoral in whatever degree or form it appears in. The enforcement of it always entails the use of physical force, for there is no other way to enforce laws. Is it really to be believed that guns are the solution to a peaceful problem of fishing?

2.) Solutions: Contrary to Mr. Brown's beliefs, an absolutely free market is the solution to the problem of sustainable fishing. In fact, I believe we need to look no further for a solution than the pricing system.

Except for very predictable manufactured goods such as computers, food more than anything is subject to price fluctuations given so many factors affecting its availability (crop yields, diseases, factory accidents, shipping methods, etc). Time matters greatly when one speaks of perishable items: if a truck were caught on a freeway with computers, that would affect the price none; fish, on the other hand, could expire, cause losses for the seller, and, as a result, raise prices.

The scarcer a food item is, the higher its market value (i.e. price) is. If lobster were in a certain abundance then prices could actually fall to the point where the highest quality lobster would only cost a dollar a pound, or even less. But such is not the case: lobster is scarce. As a result, the price per unit of lobster is rather expensive and people buy less of it than they otherwise would if it were cheaper. If the price continues to go up then people will continue to decrease their consumption. If it comes to be that selling/fishing lobster is not profitable at all then fishing will cease altogether and the species will have a chance to repopulate at a quick rate. It is only government price setting that can interfere with this free market process.

While this may be perhaps the best solution let us not forget there are others. Activism, for one, could be used to convince people to alter their menus regardless of whether or not unsustainable fish are affordable. Alton Brown himself performed this job wonderfully in his sustainable fishing episode where he explained the problem of overfishing certain species, suggested alternative species, and then engaged in demonstrating a few recipes with the alternative species he suggested. In other words, he identified a problem, offered a solution, and then offered a few demonstrations of that solution to drive the point home.

And what about science? Alterations to the genetic code of various plants have resulted in crops being more disease-resistant and more able to survive in harsher conditions. The result: more people get fed. Can science not do the same for fish?

* * * * *

Even with regards to his fallacious assumption that the government is the only solution Alton Brown did a wonderful job in supporting his cause. But he risks doing much more harm than good unless he rethinks his position and discovers that he is actually advocating the source of economic problems rather than the source of solutions.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the problem of overfishing one of property rights, or specifically, the lack of them? Is there some technological means whereby fishermen could claim schools or fishing areas so that harvesting policies, enacted by these same property owners, could allow the fish population to rebound instead of just losing current catch to other fishermen?

C. andrew

Benpercent said...

I am afraid I am not knowledgeable in that area. All I know of the problem of overfishing is what was presented in this particular episode of Good Eats; I was only replying in general principles as to why Alton Brown's solution was so bad.

But I do like your idea and would consider it also to be a valid solution. Are you speaking of merely designating areas as private property or of fish farming?