02/19/2013 09:40 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

Who Can You Trust for Sustainable Seafood?

Last week's NPR investigation on MSC-certified seafood has many questioning where to turn for sustainable seafood. The MSC label is supposed to guarantee that fish are harvested in a way that does no harm to the ecosystem, but this isn't always the case. Take for example the MSC-certified longline swordfish fishery in Canada, where NPR discovered that five blue sharks were caught with every swordfish. Though the adoption of the MSC label by big players like Wal-Mart and McDonald's has been a positive step forward, the increased demand for sustainable seafood has put pressure on MSC to certify even more fish, allowing for the program's values to be compromised. The demand for sustainable seafood, however, keeps growing: NPR reports that 80 percent of Americans say it is "very important" that the seafood they buy is sustainable. So if you can't trust a label when deciding what fish to eat, who can you trust?

The problems with the MSC program remind us of the issues surrounding the organic food industry. The original purpose of the organic movement was to conserve the land and protect small farmers, but eventually organic food became a profitable business, such that now even huge monocultures and factory farms are using the "USDA Certified Organic" stamp on their products. Sustainability became answerable to big business. Similarly, the MSC program was conceived under the premise "that protecting the oceans would also protect [businesses'] bottom line." But the hard truth is that the current way the food industry operates is incompatible with sustainable values. Merely sticking a label on a product is only putting a band-aid on the issue.

We need a fundamental shift in our food system: new business models, better government regulation, and a commitment as consumers to let go of our attachment to "cheap food." But more than that, we need to put the producer back at the center of the way we eat. Wendell Berry wrote, "Food comes from nature and from the work of people." Fish comes from the ocean and the hard labor of fishermen. Just as small farmers understand the importance of conserving the soil for their livelihood, traditional fishermen want to protect fish stocks so that they can continue their way of life. The labels have helped us forget our detachment from the source. We realized a long time ago that organic agribusiness isn't the model we need; we must "know thy farmer." It's time we change our way of thinking with seafood as well. Let's get to know the person who caught our fish.