By Shanti Johnson
The creature’s eyes stared blankly up at me from my plate. I stared back, taking in the curling antennas and the bulging, purplish-grey egg sack clutched between its legs. I could feel my Vietnamese host-mom watching me.
Normally, I like eating shrimp. Well, I like eating shrimp tails, cleanly separated from their eggs and eyes so as to make for a secular eating experience. Back home in Montana, I rarely ever eat fish or meat and prefer a mostly vegetarian diet. But I wasn’t sitting in Montana; I was sitting in an open-air restaurant, half a world away, in Vietnam, where shrimp eggs, eyes and brains are all part of the eating experience.
I picked up the steaming creature and began peeling away the thin shell—the only thing separating me from my newest cultural eating experience. As I worked away at the exterior, I wondered about where my shrimp had come from.
Shrimp are everywhere in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. They appear in big ponds across the landscape where they are being farmed; they are show up alive and squirming in buckets at the market; and they show up in soups, spring rolls and dried mounds in restaurants. The tasty crustaceans fetch a much higher price at market than rice, causing many land-owners to convert some—or all—of their land to aquaculture (which is the farming of shrimp, fish and crabs).
Like most other kinds of rapid industrialization, the boom in aquaculture has brought with it a variety of environmental problems. For instance, in order to gain a maximum yield, farmers will often dump excess amounts of feed into their stock ponds. Farmers will also use antibiotics to ensure their shrimp and fish stay disease-free until they make it to market. The creatures can’t consume all of the food and antibiotics being thrown at them, so the excess ends up washing downstream and into local water sources.
The effects from this water contamination can easily be seen on Son Island, near the city of Can Tho. On Son there has been a major increase in catfish farming and both ends of the small island (the perimeter is only about six kilometers) have been converted into stock ponds. The island lacks an adequate water treatment facility and the excess nutrients washing out of the ponds pollute the local water and make it undrinkable for residents.
Problems with aquaculture, such as the water pollution, have not gone unnoticed. Several sustainability-conscious researchers are pioneering new ways to decrease environmental pollution, while still protecting people’s livelihoods.
One solution promoted by researchers at Can Tho University is to combine rice and aquaculture farms. In this model, ponds holding crabs, fish and shrimp are maintained alongside plots of rice. The technique is symbiotic in that the rice and shrimp support each other. The shrimp help fertilize the rice and the rice helps filter the shrimp-polluted water before it leaves the farm. Additionally, farmers cannot apply pesticides or fertilizers to the rice, for fear of killing the shrimp. They must also be conscious of how much food or antibiotics they give the shrimp, for fear of harming the rice crop. The combination naturally lends itself to a more environmentally friendly outcome.
A second solution, that addresses both pollution and land-use by farmers, focuses on raising shrimp in natural mangrove habitats. In parts of Cape Ca Mau National Park, farmers are allowed to develop and cultivate 30 percent of their one-hectare land plots. Many farmers within the park are choosing to use the mangrove forests to naturally cultivate shrimp. Much like the rice/shrimp model, the relationship with the mangroves is mutually beneficial. Leaf litter from young mangroves serves as a natural food source for the shrimp, and farmers are not allowed to use artificial fertilizers, feed or antibiotics within the park, in order to protect the mangroves. Though not all farmers adhere to the rules, overall the solution seems to be working well and is helping support local and environmentally sustainable livelihoods within the park.
The next step in supporting these livelihoods is to begin marketing the shrimp as sustainably-raised and eco-friendly. Educating consumers about where their food comes from is critical to keep the environmentally-friendly industry going. As a consumer, I take my power of choice very seriously, purchasing sustainable, organic products whenever possible.
My thoughts brought me back to my pregnant shrimp. I wondered if she had come from an eco-friendly farm, or one of the more intensive shrimp farms. As great as the eco-friendly models might be, the number of shrimp per harvest is lower than what an industrial farm outputs. Intensive farming is one way Vietnam can continue to bolster its economy while also meeting local and international demand for its products, like my shrimp.
I was almost done peeling away the shell and was nearing the inevitable. It was time to take a bite. I went for the eggs first, to get it over with. I pushed my psychological chatter aside, my weariness to indulge in food with unknown origins. I tried to embrace what was in front of me.
The purplish-grey paste hit my tongue.
“It’s good, yes?” My host-mom asked, beaming.
I mulled the eggs around my mouth. Smiling, I and turned to my generous host and said, “Actually, it’s delicious.”