On Fish and Failure

This was a section of the Monster Theology post that really didn’t fit. But, its interesting, so I’m letting it stand alone.

The “golden age” of Peru, by some tellings, was the nineteenth century, when the country exported phosphate-rich guano from the Chincha islands by the ton, essentially fueling the global growth in agriculture that happened during this time. Why the Chinchas were covered in acres of guano is actually fairly simple- the Humboldt current brought in so many fish, for so many centuries, that seabirds nesting there could eat and poop without too much pressure from predators or their own population. When the guano was gone, Peru began exporting the fish directly, harvesting anchovies on the order of ten million tons per year, mostly for export. What wasn’t eaten by humans- and much wasn’t- was processed as a protein supplement for animal feed, it was that cheap.

Then, in 1972, el Nino redirected the Humboldt current. Anchovies went from twelve million tons to two million tons in a singe year. Seabirds and the export industry starved.

The problem wasn’t just economic, it was agricultural. Through an odd coincidence, the anchovies collapsed right when Earl Butz called for an end to commodity reserves and the growth of “hedge-row to hedge-row” farming. Farmers stepped in to replace the fish meal in their cattle feed with soybean meal, and by the time anchovy stocks began to recover (they have since collapsed, again) soybean acreage had nearly doubled in the US. In Brazil and Argentina, quickly becoming beef powerhouses, the increase was even more dramatic than this.

I wonder, sometimes, and I recognize that I have very little to go on here besides speculation, but I wonder whether that shift, from meat raised on fish meal to meat raised on soybean meal, might not have something to do with the weird trends in bad health seen beginning in the eighties and especially into the nineties. It might also explain the difference between the observations of Weston Price (who died in 1948, remember, back when cows ate grass) and the recent studies conducted by the WHO.

But of course, el Nino is nothing new. Neither, it turns out, is the sudden and tragic collapse of a civilization brought about by the failure of fisheries off the coast of Peru. See that little sculpture at the top of this interlude? Turns out the Moche- and plenty others- may have been taken out by el Nino as well.

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