INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT - Dr. David Suzuki Interview #2

Dr. David is a geneticist, founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, and a Professor at the University of British Columbia. He also hosts the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's science television series, "The Nature of Things" and is author of "Science Matters."


Is aquaculture the "silver bullet" for future sources of food?

A lot of people recognize that we've got limitations in terms of land on which to farm. We've got exploding populations that are looking for future sources of food and they see the oceans as the magic bullet, the place where we're suddenly going to have opportunities to harvest limitless amounts of protein. My response to that is that it is true that agriculture is what created the big revolution in human evolution. We've now had ten to twelve thousand years to experiment with agriculture, to develop techniques, and we're still doing stupid things like spraying toxic chemicals all over the land, into the water, into the air and we think that this is proper industrial agriculture.

But the oceans represent a vast area. Yes there is opportunity there but a vast area about which we are virtually ignorant. We are terrestrial, air breathing land lovers. The ocean is a complete mystery to us. The oceans cover seventy percent of the planet. We have no idea what is down there, let alone how things interact and are interconnected. So suddenly we are going to go in with our very powerful technology and we're going to exploit this with very little notion of what the long term consequences will be. I think this is very fool hardy. We've had plenty of experience in the last fifty years to see the impact of industrial logging, to see the impact of industrial animal husbandry; we've had lots of experiences to say that we should be much more cautious and much more humble.
But no, we're going to go full tilt into the oceans and we're going to create unbelievable problems. We already see it with the aquaculture that exists.

Are there similarities between the mindset that has allowed for the collapse of wild fisheries and the mindset that is now promoting the expansion of aquaculture?

I think that there is a commonality in the mindset that has led to the over harvesting of fish around the world and the mindset that suddenly sees that aquaculture is this enormous opportunity, and that mindset I think is the deadliest aspect of the environmental crisis around the world. It is a notion that we are so clever that we know enough to be able to exploit resources, to impose our technology and to be able to anticipate what the problems are. So over and over again because we think we are so smart we invent a technology like DDT. Yes it kills bugs, very powerful, but you know insects are the most numerous most successful group of organisms on the planet. Maybe one out of every thousand of species of insects is a pest to human beings. Now the idea that we're going to us a chemical that kills all insects just to get at the one or two that are a pest to humans strikes me as the most ludicrous form of management. That is like saying I'm going to manage crime in Vancouver, we'll kill everybody in the city. You will get rid of crime but that is kind of stupid.

Over and over again we have this kind of simple minded idea that we can come in with very powerful technologies without any understanding of complexity or of interconnectedness, impose our technology and then get the surroundings to yield what we want. We want to pump nature on steroids and get ever more productivity and you know one of the things I've learned from native people is the word respect. If you don't respect other people you're not going to learn a damn thing from them. If you don't respect the natural environment then you're going to try to impose you're will on it and we're always going to get slapped in the face. And its time that we paid a bit of attention to past experience it seems to me.

What is the most important change that is required in the way that the government approaches the development of a sustainable aquaculture industry?

In order to develop a sustainable aquaculture we have to start with an understanding of our enormous ignorance. We know nothing about the ocean marine ecosystems, their components or how they're all interdependent. That said then we ought to go with tremendous caution. If the oceans are important to us, and they are, the oceans are where we were born. The oceans are a vast reservoir of our relatives, animals and plants that live there. If those things are important to us then we should go in with an understanding that we're going to approach very gingerly and whatever we're doing, the most important aspect is to protect the pristine nature of those systems.

I think right now that our government in British Columbia has basically understood that the coastal marine areas are in very bad shape through clear cutting and urban development toxic pollution and they're essentially writing off wild stocks and looking at the water simply as a medium to grow more protein. I think we ought to have much greater respect for the complexity in the oceans. So I think protection of wild ecosystems of the oceans should be our highest priority and whatever we do should not threaten that. Indeed our department of fisheries and oceans is charged with protecting marine organisms. That is their requirement, they're mandated by parliament and yet the Department has become like a booster to the aquaculture industry. They accept all of the hype of the industry and seem to have forgotten their primary role, which is to protect the organisms that live there.

To what degree do you think that the government's strong support for the salmon aquaculture industry in BC has compromised their ability and responsibility to protect and restore wild salmon populations?

In Canada both federally and provincially, governments have become such boosters of the aquaculture industry that they really are blinded by that faith, that faith that the aquaculture industry is constantly hyping us with that they know what they're doing, that we have the highest standards in the world that we care about the wild organisms and the oceans. But they become blinded by the hype of the industry and at the very time that provincially governments are cutting back on our ability to even monitor the industry by cutting back the fisheries departments, the industry itself is expanding like mad and I don't see how there can be any responsible overseeing by the current bureaucracy either federally or provincially. I should say, you know I've seen this in other areas. Biotechnology which is an area I was involved with as a scientist is a truly exciting and revolutionary area.

But because it is so young and revolutionary the extent of our ignorance in the area is still enormous and yet governments have become such heavy boosters of biotechnologies that they discount any of the critics or people raising profound questions are dismissed, and its the same thing with the aquaculture industry. What is remarkable to me is that aquaculture lobbyists can come and hammer the hell out of its critics and proclaim all of these wonderful things without ever being asked, "wait a minute now aren't you just like a lobbyist for the tobacco industry who told us for decades that smoking wasn't harmful. Why do you have any credibility?" No one ever asks that. They get up and harangue and say, "oh no all those environmentalists have a hidden agenda." What's our agenda? My agenda is right out in the open. My agenda is that our health and our survival is dependent on the health of ecosystems around the world. That includes marine ecosystems. Yeah, I have an agenda and I'm trying to protect it. But why does that diminish the credibility then of people who are criticizing the industry?

Is there any financial involvement between the Department of Fisheries and the aquaculture industry?

I don't know about the political links, about how closely the aquaculture industry is tied to the political parties nor do I know anything about whether money has exchanged hands. There are lots of rumors and so on, but I simply don't know. I think it's worth pursuing. If there is a conflict of interests they ought to be nailed on that.

Do you think that the government has yet to effectively respond to the real dangers of the spread of disease or the threat of parasite infestation?

The problem with the responsive government both provincially and federally to the real crisis can be seen for example in the collapse of the pink salmon run in the Broughton Archipelago a couple of years ago, which was a catastrophic collapse and the problem is that the governments are so busy covering their asses that there is a constant denial, "no the evidence is lousy, you're not a reputable scientist." All the kinds of things that happened to Rachel Carson when she published Silent Spring forty years ago. It's a denial in an attempt to discredit the critics. It seems to me that an organization, a bureaucracy charged with protecting natural systems would immediately respond, "oh my god you know if this is true we've got to do something.

Lets go in, find out, lets be more cautious," but instead its a constant covering of backsides by trying to discount the evidence. And then when forced to finally admit this is serious they've got to do something. Then they try to put a band aid on the system. "You know we'll move it away from the salmon." What the hell do they know where the salmon all go! "We're going to fallow." You know I hate the use of terminology of agriculture. Agriculture is ten thousand years old. The idea that they're raising these fish as if they were farm animals is absolutely ludicrous. We are in a frontier mentality; this industry in a seriously large way has only grown in the last twenty years. We're making it up as we go for god sakes. We talk about fallowing and all that stuff. We're pouring chemicals into open nets. Whatever you pour into there is going to drop down and be spread throughout the oceans.

The simple solution obviously is until we learn a bit more lets keep those salmon and the water separate from the oceans that we value so much. You know why not do the right thing. Its going to cost a little bit more but damn it all it should. You know? And lets protect the things that have evolved over ten thousand years and they are ultimately the source of our knowledge. If you want to farm fish properly then at least let's know some thing about the basic biology of the wild animals and we can learn from that. But instead we go ahead and we think we're so hot shot we can go in and start breading them and putting chemicals in them and genetically engineering them and we're going to get bigger yields. I think that is unbelievably arrogant.

How could the BC salmon industry utilize environmentally sound closed container systems while still remaining competitive with countries such as Chile and Norway?

The issue that is always thrown out from the aquaculture industry is this is a global business. We're competing with big outfits in Chile, in Norway, in Scotland and you're asking us to ad the extra burden of solid containment? We'll go belly up. We can't afford it. Well the reality is that this is a very young industry having got its foot through the door. Having established as stronghold, suddenly their very survival becomes the dominant element determining everything we do. Sorry. We've got it wrong. This is an activity that right now is absolutely damaging. There is no question about that. It is harming the ocean ecosystems and it cannot continue this way and if it means the aquaculture industry in BC has to go belly up, I'm sorry! That is not my dominant concern here. People have fished wild salmon. Wild salmon are the icon for this province and to lose that for the sake of the salmon farmers who have been around for twenty years, most of whom are owned by countries off shore? That is not going to be a high priority for me.

The problem we face is that the economics of it all now are absurd. Here we are raising an animal, a very expensive animal, to feed the rich countries and what are we feeding people? We're feeding them the equivalent of lions if we're talking about mammals. We're dealing with carnivores. In order to grow that high end market meat we're feeding them perfectly edible fish. This strikes me as an unbelievable luxury and we want to worry then about whether this industry can sustain itself. This is a luxury and industry that is being subsidized by not paying the proper ecological price of destruction of food sources in other places, pollution, disease and so on. Because we're not paying for all that then there appears to be a "glut" on the market and prices are going down. We should be paying the proper price for those salmon and its probably something most people won't want to pay. So I think that the economics of it all are crazy and are discouraging us from doing the right things.

Do you think that First Nation communities that make deals with salmon farming companies to farm salmon are making a deal with the devil, or do you think that they are environmentally feasible?

One of the most difficult aspects of fish farming in British Columbia today is the agreements that are being made between the First Nations and the fish farming companies, and this had been a very difficult one for me. I've been working with first nations now since the late 1970s and I've certainly had long discussions with Percy Star and Archie Robinson of the Kitasu and the Clamtu. And I've had long discussions with the Hiltsu community in Bella Bella. I've been adopted by one of the families in Bella Bella and this is a very difficult thing. For me the issue is one of poverty and inequity. You know environmentalists are seen as tree huggers and people that care about seals and whales and stuff like that, but we have to realize that at the center of the ecological crisis is humanity. It's humanity and the way we are living on this planet.

It's one of the great ironies to me that the people who are originally of this land, for whom vast amounts of British Columbia are still their territory and intact, are still the poorest of the people in the province. Billions and billions of dollars in resources, trees, fish, and minerals have been taken out of the lands of the First Nations and yet they are the last to receive any of the benefits of that. Would you go into a community with eighty, eighty five percent unemployment even though they have long traditions, they understand their connectedness to the land. Hell they taught me everything I know about environmentalism! They've been my teachers, but when you have eighty-five percent unemployment in your community you are focused on other things and so I talked to Percy about this. They did not want to go into fish farming. Wild fish were the life blood of the Kitasu people, but they were desperate and they got into it and now they are begging environmentalists and they begged me, "if you don't like it please help us. What are the alternatives? Is there a better way of doing it?"

They're certainly open to that and it's painful to them to have to enter into those agreements. So it's not an easy issue. On the other hand if you look at the people in Alert bay and see what the impacts of fish farming have been economically -- which has been squat to the people in ah Alert Bay - and in terms of the sea lice and diseases, they have been devastated by the impact. There has been very little benefit for them. So I think the brothers and sisters of first nations should inform those who are about to enter into agreements with their own experience. Educate them, but they are going to have to make up their own mind. At this point there are too many questions about open pens. Try to seek government subsidies for solid containment. Do it as an experiment. Let's find out whether it can be done and how to do it.

How do you respond to the claims that the risk of genetically altered salmon interbreeding with wild salmon is so small, and that the benefits of faster-growing fish ouweigh the potential dangers?

We're at a point where genetic engineering is really at the beginning of its impact on our lives. This is revolutionary technology. There is no doubt about it. Now when a technology, a new technology, is mature that means that you can take a specific sequence of DNA pull it out of an organism and stick it into a very specific spot in the DNA of another organism and predict with absolute certainty what that result will be. Now when you can do that over and over again, then it's a mature science. But then you can't publish papers. No one wants to publish papers about something you know what the results will be. The last time I looked, the biotechnology journals are filled with papers. What does that mean? We know squat.

One of the leading inventors of biotechnology, Craig Venter, who started Solara, which is a company that really got the ball rolling on the human genome project, regarded as a bit of a renegade, but he really drove the completion of the human genome. You know he said a couple of years ago and let me quote this in his words. He said that the amount that we know about basic biology and cells and how they function is less than one percent. He said we know shit about basic biology. Now hearing that from one of the leading guys in a popular journal, you then have to ask, if we know shit about this kind of basic information how dare anyone have the arrogance to say I know for certain the risks are that small.