Salmon production is hugely important to the Scottish and UK economies. In both cases, it is the number one food export by value – Scottish farmed salmon is a £1 billion a year industry; in 2019 its revenue generation exceeded the combined £926m value of every other landed fish species by UK vessels.
Scotland has long been a global leader not just in supplying salmon commercially, but in aquaculture more generally. This commercial harvesting of fish and shellfish is vital for the sustainability of the world’s oceans, and it is set to play an ever-growing role in the battle against climate change.
It is a sector of the economy where science is as important as nature and where innovation will continue to reap huge rewards.
Technology-driven developments in the fish and wider agriculture sector and how they can help the planet will form an important theme for discussion at a one-day online environmental conference next month.
On November 3, The Herald is partnering with Scotland’s pioneering network of seven innovation centres to host this event. It will facilitate cooperation and discussion on climate issues in the countdown to the COP26 gathering in Glasgow next year.
This COP26 event is set to be the most important international meeting on the subject since the 2015 Paris agreement. It is expected to attract some 30,000 delegates and to capture the attention of the world.
SAIC (the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre) is one of the innovation centres involved. The organisation will lead conference sessions on the subject of sustainable food from land and sea, with a focus on innovation and applying new technologies to food production.
Like the other centres, SAIC is working to bring business, academia and other agencies together in order to stimulate change in its sector through driving, sharing and nurturing innovation. It has been the catalyst for a combined £45.5 million from industry and other SAIC partners into research to date.
Heather Jones, the organisation’s CEO, explains why aquaculture is so important and how it helps sustainability. “Most of the world’s capture fisheries – which harvest natural marine and freshwater resources – are now fully exploited.
“They are taking out the maximum they can while leaving enough fish to go on reproducing. Go beyond that and you create shoal collapse, meaning you can’t fish for things like North Sea cod stocks anymore.
“We’ve got very good at managing these capture fisheries to keep them within sustainable levels, but globally, there ultimately aren’t enough fish in the sea to feed the world.”
This, she explains, is where aquaculture plays such an important role, growing and harvesting high-value species such as shrimp, tuna and, of course, salmon in a sustainable and non-depleting way.
Heather points out that Scotland has taken this industry to world-class levels through its role as an innovation leader. “The Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling has been doing fish farming research for almost 50 years.
“The staff are global experts in terms of academic knowledge and have advised businesses and governments all over the world. Harvesting the world’s renewable resources for food is a natural and ethical thing to do, and it’s vital to ensure we feed a growing population.”
What contribution can sustainable aquaculture make, though, to the fight against climate change? “For a start, all fish are more climate-friendly to produce than land animals, and that’s for two very simple reasons.
“Land animals, such as humans, have to fight gravity. That pulls us down and means we have to expend energy growing upwards and outwards and also keeping ourselves warm or cool.
“However, fish live in freshwater or seawater, which is a buoyant environment. And their body temperature is the same as that of the water they live in. They don’t have to expend any effort dealing with gravity – they just float. And they don’t divert energy into regulating their body temperature either. That means far more of the energy they consume gets turned into muscle.
“In other words, there’s a more efficient feed conversion ratio, which is much more climate friendly. It might take several kilograms of feed to produce a kilogram of beef or pork, but it needs only one kilogram of feed to produce the same amount of farmed salmon. That’s hugely efficient and can help us to bring food to the planet.”
Harvesting our waters and oceans also takes pressure off arable land, so addressing another problem – that there simply isn’t enough of this to meet the protein requirements of the planet’s future population.
There will, of course, be constant innovation to make land more productive, but aquaculture will also grow its sustainability though continuing cost reduction, shortening of supply lines and replacement of diesel fuel with renewable energy.
Heather explains: “The sector is looking at innovations such as electric workboats and charging stations on piers. SAIC is also exploring insights from sensors, including using them to spot and track things like weather systems and movement of jellyfish, which can kill fish.
“Aquaculture is becoming very high-tech – we also have subsea cameras and sensors able to monitor the temperature and pH level of the water along with what the fish are eating, so evaluating the optimal conditions for growth.”
The sessions SAIC is hosting at next month’s conference will explore sustainability themes further, stimulating discussion by technical specialists in areas such as salmon production, agriculture and food security, the environment and retail.
“We’re going to invite the participants to talk about what the opportunities and challenges are for food production in the UK and how innovation can contribute to climate mitigation, both domestically and globally.
“We have to anticipate the adverse effects of climate change and decide what actions we need to take to minimise these effects. A lot of technology is already being developed for this purpose in areas such as satellites, sensors, imaging systems and artificial intelligence.
“In terms of mitigation, we need to look at what we can do as humans to change our behaviours either individually or collectively in terms of both food production and consumption to reduce the output of greenhouse gases and to improve carbon capture.”
Another session will showcase current innovations by Scottish SMEs currently operating at the cutting edge of innovation in food production.
“For instance, we are featuring a business called R3IoT, which is creating a software platform to allow fish farmers from anywhere in the world to upload data from their farms to a satellite into the cloud.”
Another company in the SAIC consortium, Deep Branch Biotechnology, is working on the conversion of CO2 from industrial emissions into high-value single cell proteins which can be used as climate-friendly, low-carbon ingredients for animal feed. This project is being co-funded by SAIC.
“We have impetus for change because of COP26, and also because customers and young people are recognising that climate damage is real.
“At SAIC, we really want to encourage others to seek out those innovations and so drive improvements in global society.”
UN figures show the world’s population is expected to reach more than nine billion by 2050. To feed those extra mouths, scientists and policy makers recognise that action is needed now to double global food production, whilst simultaneously responding to climate change.
Food producers responsible for harnessing nature’s resources to harvest the fruits of land and sea can play their part in feeding the world sustainably.
The climate change threat provides the impetus to utilise naturally renewing resources, from CO2-reducing forests of trees or seaweeds; power generation from sun, wind, waves and gravity; and cycling nutrients into food as energy for humans.
Scotland’s food industry is ready to play its part, switching to renewable energy sources, reducing waste, and recycling outputs from one industry into the inputs of others – the so-called circular economy. In the view of innovation experts at SAIC, one of the best ways to accelerate collective efforts to tackle climate change is collaboratively.
SAIC believes that sharing knowledge about innovation from company to company, country to country, and species to species can support sustainable food production.
That is why, as part of the Scotland’s Countdown to COP26 conference on 3rd November, a panel of experts will discuss the opportunities and challenges surrounding sustainable food production, including key areas for future collaboration.
Chairman of SAIC, David Gregory, said: “The conversation around climate change has gained momentum in recent years, but the real opportunity for Scotland lies in finding innovative ways of adapting to changing environmental conditions and being at the forefront of technologies that improve the way we produce foods.
“As our population grows, the aquaculture sector is in a prime position to help feed an ever-growing population.
“Seafood has an important role to play in meeting the increasing demand for high-quality protein and sustainability must continue to be the focus of new developments. Positive moves are continuously being made to mitigate the impact of seafood production on the environment; this is an important ‘work in progress’.
“In agriculture and aquaculture, like other sectors, future-proofing will depend on bringing together the right people with complementary skills and expertise to deliver necessary and meaningful change. However, the scale of the matter means that it’s not something that can be addressed by any single company or individual research project in isolation.
“Scotland is well-placed to foster innovation, with leading academic institutions and sectoral experts that can support our industries to grow in a sustainable way.
“Organisations like SAIC, and the other Innovation Centres, can help companies innovate, both by identifying some of the opportunities, and by supporting the development of commercially viable ideas that can be brought to the wider market.
“Sustainability is rightly becoming a common thread through every conversation about future food production, including in developing economies, as well as discussion about equality and international growth.
In Scotland, we have the collective capabilities to develop low-carbon industries, supported by pioneering research, that will feed our population for years to come.”
Making up the panel for the discussion on 3rd November, David Gregory will be joined by Julie Fitzpatrick, scientific director of the Moredun Research Institute; Geoff Simm, assistant principal and director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security at the University of Edinburgh; and Anne Anderson, sustainability director for the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO).
Anna Turrell, head of environment for Tesco; Andrew Bauer, head of national programmes for SAC Consulting, the UK’s largest agricultural consultancy; and Adam Hughes, a researcher and senior lecturer in sustainable aquaculture at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) will also be taking part in the live session.
Attendees can also hear how CO2 is being transfomed into animal feed as part of the ground-breaking REACT-FIRST project, while there will also be discussions on the strategic production of protein, digitising the planet, and the important future role seaweed has
Join the conversation and take up the challenge by registering to join Scotland’s Countdown to COP26 at: hopin.to/events/scotland-s-countdown-tocop26. The event takes place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, is free to attend, and will be accessible online.