Why resurrecting fake news about Pangasius are a loss for humanity

The Vietnamese Pangasius sector has seen rough times since wrong claims back in 2011 destroyed the reputation of Panga farming in the Mekong Delta. While experts and scientists have worked hard to establish facts and to improve production practices, wrongdoers and laymen continue to destroy what was once legitimately lauded as a ‘success story’ of aquaculture development.

Back in early 2014 I wrote a post about the Pangasius industries in Vietnam and how wrong claims have had a heavy toll on a sector that provides employment and livelihoods for thousands of people in the Mekong Delta. Despite an improvement process that involved far-ranging consultation with hundreds of experts and stakeholders all over the world, Pangasius production is once more affected by wrong allegations: a TV report followed by various news articles have led to rapid declines of Pangasius imports to Spain. Whereas French supermarket giant Carrefour was quick to remove Pangasius from its shelves in other European countries as well, consumers do better listening to science than following the decisions of sharks and laymen.

Firstly, one needs to understand the parties involved in the TV report that led to renewed distrust in Europe. ‘En el punto de mira[1]’ aired by Spanish Cadena 4, is a program that most of all seeks to increase its viewer numbers. It does so by creating scandals that personally affect the majority of a largely ignorant society. It might be a coincidence that Ricardo Pardo, reporter of the Panga story, comes from Vigo which is also home to Spain’s infamous fishing fleet. A billion dollar business that has lived from exploiting worldwide fishery resources over decades thanks to heavy support from EU tax payers, Vigo’s fishery industry has vested interests in protecting its market shares and deceiving consumers over its unsustainable business ethics or the fact that it has done very little to improve its performance over the years while others did. Back in 2011, when first allocations targeted at weakening the Pangasius sector, the anti-campaign was driven by European salmon and trout farmers. Similar to their Spanish colleagues, they did not primarily look at improving the production conditions in Vietnam, but at saving their own skin and market shares, which under the increasing pressure exerted by NGOs and backed by scientific evidence became threatened. An industry that consumes more fish in the form of feed than it produces can’t be regarded as sustainable and only increases the problem of global overfishing. Therefore it needs other means to fight competitors with a scientific advantage.

Secondly, one needs to understand the culture of the country where the accusations come from. In Spain, a country disease-ridden by systematic corruption and one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, particularly among younger people, sensations and fake news make a good substrate for public outcry. This is all the more the case if people can attack citizens from countries that according to their viewpoint should be worse off than themselves but are obviously not. Envious, lazy and powerless in light of a quasi-totalitarian government, Spain’s younger generation uses youtubing, facebooking, blogging and tweeting to steam off part of the rage that derives from a lack of access and lost opportunities. In that world, likes count more than facts and badly investigated news travel quicker than brains can think. Spanish love seafood, yet the majority knows very little about sustainability and eco-footprints of fish products. The reason is the absence of a discourse as it has been held in other countries for more than a decade. In addition, where people don’t even know the difference between Switzerland and Sweden, Asia is an unknown monster famous for the production of cheap Chinese products which are sold in ‘todo a cien’ shops now predominantly run by Chinese immigrants. Needless to say that part of that hate against Chinese also affects Vietnamese, Thai, and all the other ‘chinorris’ who take over business in Spain.

Finally, one should not trust a source of information unless it is known to be sound. When Celia Ojeda, responsible for Oceans and Fishery at Greenpeace Spain, claims that Pangasius farming “destroys mangrove” and that the Panga industry was “affected by slavery” then she uses her position at Greenpeace to impress citizens that are geographically and culturally even less educated than she is, ignoring that as a freshwater species Pangasius is not farmed in mangrove areas and that the ‘human right abuses she might have heard of came from Vietnam’s neighbor Thailand. Likewise, if retail giant Carrefour is dropping Pangasius from its product range, then this says more about its sourcing policy than production methods in Vietnam. The fact that Carrefour follows claims that are almost diametrically opposed to the reality—Pangasius is one of the more eco-friendly farmed fishes, the Mekong River is by far not the most polluted river, and Pangasius that enters Europe undergoes some of the most stringent controls on the planet—suggests that Carrefour knows nothing about the sector. Part of the failure of the Pangasius sector is exactly the arrogance of retailers like Carrefour who are only interested in exploiting their ‘partners’ as a source of cheap goods rather than taking ownership in their value chains. While leading companies work together with producers to improve Pangasius production, Carrefour & Co. delegate sourcing responsibility to traders that provide the cheapest products on the market. Needless to say that such businesses lack any kind of tracebility. Turning their backs on Pangasius reflects a lack of information and consequently lack of trust in themselves, not in Pangasius producers which they probably only know from saying.

Education and science, the only way to advance humanity, can help us to shed light on a complicated Pangasius story and provide answers to complex questions. In contrast, in a wold in which poor journalism is preferred over science, humanity is doomed to fail – just as some among us who bark up the wrong tree.

[1] Spanish for ‚In the spotlight‘

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About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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