A Cook's Diary

For the love of tilapia

The following article appeared on the opinion page of the January 15 edition of Manila Standard Today.

A few days ago, after feeling amazed over a Web log entry of an American who cooked tilapia and called the fish tilapia, I set out on a tilapia reading spree. My amazement grew when I realized just how popular tilapia had become: Now it is included in gout diets, low-carbohydrate diets and even body building diets.

You have to understand my bias. I am a food blogger and anything that can elevate Filipino cuisine in the global community, I willingly do. That is why my already-finished but still unpublished cookbook exhibits a decided slant in favor of tilapia, bangus, rice, adobo and coconut, especially viands and desserts made with coconut milk.

For a Third World country that seems hell bent on building an economy based on its exports, humans included (no pun intended on overseas workers), it feels good that as a Web publisher, I can help by indirectly creating a demand by writing day in and day out about our agricultural produce and how they make our cuisine unique and memorable. And when I recently discovered that a former classmate has opened a deli and café shop, Rafa’s Delicafe in Xavierville across Ateneo University where he is actively advertising corn coffee, I wondered why we are importing corn flour and corn meal when we grow enough corn to warrant the interest of investors in putting up a corn flour processing and marketing industry.

That said, you may better understand the context in which I am going to write about tilapia.

I wrote a Web log entry about tilapia being an international star. I knew that Pinoys have this love affair with tilapia and the readers’ comments proved as much. Well, until someone posted the following comment which I am reproducing verbatim:

“Dear Connie,

As a hog raiser here in Central Luzon, I hear fellow farm owners feed their dead pigs to their fish pens of tilapia. My hubby stays away from tilapia like hell but I don’t. He warns me of the mad cow disease that afflicted England last decade. Same parallelism. I am not freaking joking, Connie. I hope some of your readers can discern this. Besides buying fishmeals for their tilapias they just drop the dead carcass. Nakakatipid. And same with the dalag and hito which some breeders purchase dead pigs because it is dirt cheap. Our area was swamped of swine flu last year third quarter and it was a heave of sigh where to dump but to the fish ponds of tilapia.”

You can just imagine how my jaw dropped upon reading that. Of course, one comment is one comment and the best thing that anyone can do under the circumstances is to educate oneself. So, I did. I read about tilapia and tilapia feed and the information I got was both enlightening and unnerving.

In the Web site of Alberta Pork, a non-profit company based in Canada, there was a report in the summer of 2005 about the Nong Bua farming company in southern Bangkok, Thailand which is primarily engaged in hog raising and secondarily engaged in tilapia and catfish farming. Below is a snippet:

“You will not find dead pigs being incinerated at Nong Bua, catfish are carnivorous and the farm’s dead pigs make an ideal food source. The dead pigs are first cooked, using biogas as the fuel, naturally, before being used as an ideal protein source for the catfish. All in all, Nong Bua is an amazing place, or rather, business and Mr. Srisuppatpong must be congratulated on the scale and scope of his entrepreneurialism.”

Okay, so there is a good basis for the claim that there is such a practice of feeding dead pigs to catfish. But cooked dead pig doesn’t sound bad at all unless diseased dead pigs are knowingly fed to the fish.

Next, there is an article in Africabiz Online that hails intergrated farming which translates to using pig, chicken and duck manures for raising tilapia. It says:

“To lower breeding costs in fish farming business it is better to use natural feeding based on vegetable and organic manure. That is what the Chinese had been doing since ages–for more than 3,000 years. In China’s countryside, farmers integrate fish, livestock, and crop production…

“Pig, chicken and duck manures increase fish production more than cow and sheep manure. Animals fed high quality grains produce manure that is better as a fertilizer than those fed diets high in crude fiber. Fresh manure is better than dry manure…

“However, such kind of alimentation (particularly vegetable wastes, poultry wastes and livestock manure) yield fish that has a particular muddy smell. Further, such a feeding may have a fatal impact on the rate of dead fish present in the breeding pond if livestock and poultry suffered a break of disease….”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of throwing fresh manure into tilapia ponds sounds more dreadful that feeding them with uncooked dead pigs.

The question of course is whether such industry practices are observed by local tilapia growers. All the while, I thought that the occasionally muddy tasting tilapia that we get are simply those with oral fixation that they couldn’t stop gobbling even after all the feed has been consumed and they ended up eating the mud at the bottom of the pond. That’s what sellers of saltwater tilapia always say to convince buyers on the wisdom of choosing saltwater tilapia over freshwater tilapia. Either they were lying or they didn’t really know.

Still and all, if we consider that the vegetables we eat–sometimes, in their raw state–are grown with organic fertilizers a.k.a. manure, perhaps, we shouldn’t be so squeamish about tilapia fertilized with the same things. And unless there is convincing evidence that it is a practice among local tilapia growers to throw the carcasses of diseased pigs into the tilapia ponds, I don’t think I will give up eating tilapia.

It’s nice to get scared out of one’s wits sometimes though, since it obliges us to read up and try to learn more about what we put in our mouths and into our stomachs.

References:

Alberta Pork
Africabiz Online
See also: “Tilapia fish farming in Pacific Island Countries” by Satya Nandlal and Timothy Pickering, a paper published by the Pacific Community and Marine Studies Program, The University of the South Pacific

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