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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: The soaring cost of food

Planes in the night sky. —
Planes in the night sky. — 123RF Stock Photo

At the end of the runway at the Halifax airport, a crashed 747-400 was being torn apart with a backhoe last weekend.

Stay with me now.

Sometimes, I lie on my back on the grass in summer, far enough out of St. John’s to have the full clear night sky undimmed by city lights. Without a moon, the Milky Way wavers like a long gossamer scarf in the cooling air, the constellations whose names I barely know stand out bright against the millions of other, lesser stars. It is nothing short of humbling to see just how many other stars there are beyond our single sun.

There are two man-made constants to that night sky: the gentle, silver-grey and steady arc of satellites curving across the sky, and the bright lights of high-flying aircraft, usually heading east to Europe on the flight path known as the North Atlantic Track.

And I wonder, as I always do, just who and what is making its way across the sky, some 30,000 feet up; packed tight in airline seats, are there lovers heading toward each other, families heading toward new lives and new adventures? Are they looking down at unknown Avalon Peninsula towns beneath them, each town a spiderweb of orange streetlights, the passengers above wondering what sorts of lives they are passing over?

Or are the aircraft cargo flights, loaded with mail or auto parts or lobster, winging their way to markets and customers a half a world away?

(I’ve done the same thing in the Nevada desert, looking up at the sky from deep in the heart of an 800,000-acre wilderness area. The biggest difference? The sheer lack of sound. The windless dark desert not only lets you see the sky-crossing planes, but lets you hear them well in advance, as well.)

But back to the cargo flying so high up; the 747 that crashed in Halifax was landing from Chicago at the time of the crash, scheduled to pick up something like 120 tonnes of lobster. Then, the plane was scheduled to fly to Alaska, refuel, and then take that lobster to China, one of two flights a week for a Chinese-owned seafood company called First Catch. Travelling in close to a straight line, leaving out Alaska, that’s a trip of some 10,702 kilometres.

(Irony of ironies, the frozen shrimp you pick up at the grocery store may have made the same trip, albeit in the other direction.)

It’s fascinating, though, how far we’re willing to ship something simple as a good meal on a night out.

In a way, it reminds me of the Stan Rogers’ song “Tiny Fish for Japan,” a song about fishermen catching Great Lakes smelt for foreign markets, because smelt were the only fish that were left to catch. (I grew up in Halifax, and for years thought that the song was actually about the Atlantic caplin fishery. In the late 1970s, roe-bearing females were being caught for the Japanese market, and still are. So, another fishery catching “tiny fish for Japan.”)

It’s fascinating, though, how far we’re willing to ship something simple as a good meal on a night out. And it’s not just caplin and lobster, either; everything from other fish species to sea urchin roe and sea cucumbers make long, long flights to market.

(The lobster made it, by the way, but obviously on a different plane.)

To do all that, though, we spend an awful lot of effort and resources and time and fuel.

And some of the effects are bigger even than the obvious environmental footprint involved. In 2004, a different 747 crashed during takeoff at Halifax after loading 53,000 pounds of lobster and fish.

Unfortunately, that 53,000 lbs. — and the fuel taken on — wasn’t added into the flight’s weight and takeoff speed calculations. Seven crew died in the crash.

You wonder if we can really afford to eat so well.

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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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