Jay Rayner on George Monbiot


Monbiot article on fish.

Jay Rayner’s response

Having just spent a year writing a book about what sustainability in the food supply really means, obviously I have no argument with George over the importance of the subject. But what he must also know is how complicated it is; how so many things you assume to be the case often aren’t. Certainly it is no place for over simplifications. Because if you do that you find yourself having to recant publicly, as George himself has had to do in recent years over nuclear energy and veganism.

On monkfish, for example, George quotes selectively from the website he points to. It does indeed mention a lack of monitoring and that the ‘species is vulnerable throughout their range.’ But it also says: ‘Monkfish is usually only targeted in gillnet fisheries. Gillnet caught fish tend to be larger and thus are more likely to be mature and therefore the more sustainable choice. Status of stocks and management vary, but the best choice for trawled monkfish is from Iceland.’ In no way can it be said to be a blanket denouncement of eating monkfish. Likewise, while George insists the MSC is the only reliable voice on this, there are other sites, especially looking at Monkfish caught off the US coast, which give a different picture.

That’s the thing. It really is complicated. George bigs up Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for his great work on fish sustainability. And it’s true. Hugh’s done brilliant things. However one of Hugh’s strategies was to talk up mackerel, by getting us all to eat deep fried mackerel baps. Since then the mackerel fisheries around the Faroe Islands have become a major cause for concern. Mackerel is no longer the great universally sustainable option we thought it was. Likewise, we have long understood that cod was a no-no. And some of it is. But if you get cod from the Barents Sea, where there has been a bio-mass explosion, it’s fine. All of this does put the onus back on consumers to be responsible for their shopping decisions.

George Monbiot recently published a piece on his blog laying into the organisation Media Lens, with good reason. They hector, attack and abuse anybody who does not totally agree with their old school leftist position. In today’s piece about fish sustainability Monbiot uses exactly the same tactics. It’s crude, blunt, hectoring and over simplistic. He calls for a debate but with a clear subtext: we all debate it until you realise how clever and smart I am and agree with my position and do what I say.

The Guardian and the Observer probably talk more about sustainability than almost any other British newspaper organisation. (Certainly I mention the issue in my reviews of sea food restaurants). We do of course need to keep an eye on our approach to these things so we genuinely do practise what we preach. But attacking good chefs, all of whom have done more to influence consumer opinions in the right way than self-righteous George can ever dream of, is not just irritating. It’s shabby, and amounts to little more than grandstanding.