Aquaculture’s time is now
Fish farming can thrive in this new age of tech disruption, writes Jason Holland
When it comes to food production, few sectors can match the current growth rate of aquaculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the rate by which the global aquaculture output is increasing continues to outstrip those of all other farmed animals, and as the planet’s most efficient protein generator – through its ability to convert more feed into edible product than these other production systems – it’s expected to provide 60% of the seafood that we consume by 2030. Aligned with the awareness that the sector is now a very financially lucrative space, there’s an unprecedented amount of technological innovations and innovators entering the space, while data is increasingly regarded as the most valuable asset for fish farmers and their businesses.
Speaking at the recent two-day Aquaculture Innovation Europe conference in London, Helge Stubberud, solution architect with IBM Cloud in Norway, explained that the landscape has changed dramatically for the sector, and whereby five years ago, companies would have to invest great sums to have IBM technology, it’s now readily available via the Cloud. At the same time, waves of university leavers specialising in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) are making it easier for the industry to use these new tech tools.
“Investments are more realistic,” said Stubberud, who has worked for IBM for 35 years, the last three of which have been in the aquaculture sector. “There is still a challenge for it to be deployed to a large scale. But to get started, it’s much, much easier than it was five years ago. And compared with 10 years ago, it’s a totally different ball game.”
He also believes that unlike in other industries, commercial aquaculture businesses could see the benefits of sharing their data.
“For farmers, I think the benefits of sharing data outweighs the commercial risk because they are all in the same pond, so the environmental issues are the same – you will all meet them. If one company makes a mistake, it will affect everyone else.
“I think tech and feed companies might find it a little more difficult. But the sharing of data is definitely a great concept.”
Attracting fresh talent
While IBM has 108 years of business, most of the tech companies looking to make their mark as new entrants in the aquaculture sector are start-ups. One of those, Observe Technologies, uses an AI platform to help producers decide how best to manage their farms.
“We came from a very technical background and not from an aquaculture background,” said Hemang Rishi, company co-founder and CEO. “We saw that there was an immense opportunity in aquaculture, whereas the agriculture space was already very saturated.
“Our journey began with a simple phone call. A company gave us 30 minutes of their time which was unbelievable. That is the community that you’ve got in the aquaculture space, which doesn’t always happen in other spaces. We started there; understood the problems; put some research in; and submitted proposals. One thing led to the next. We were collecting data, we had trial sites organised, and over the next two years we developed the product and started to get clients. That has led us to where we are at today.”
Rishi describes aquaculture as an “amazing ecosystem”, where talking to a fish farming incumbent isn’t the hardest thing to achieve.
“It’s a close enough industry that eventually you will get your opportunity to at least ask your questions,” he said. “In my time, there has been change. There are a lot more actors in the space from when I first started, but I don’t think that changes the opportunities to get started.”
From there, he advises that the focus should be on the people that will ultimately use the solution on a day-to-day basis. “It’s a really basic, fundamental principle, but it’s often forgotten…you are working with people in the industry that are using your system, so design the system around them. That is far more powerful than being able to say I have the most precise technology, but it can never be used.”
Neil Wendover, product line director at Cargill Digital Insights, agrees. “Fish and shrimp farmers are a stubborn lot. Ironically, the truly disruptive technology will be the simplest, most practical, easy to understand and easy to implement solutions. Obviously, it’s the insights too – technology allows data and that allows insights. It’s the insights that address customer needs and allows them to make changes.
“I think there are too many exciting technologies to talk about, but at the end of the day, you have to make it practically applicable and truly powerful in terms of addressing needs and behaviour changes,” he said.
Right place, right time
What’s underpinning aquaculture’s technological progress is the extremely good positioning that seafood finds itself in as a consumer food category, particularly its ability to provide an affordable supply of quality protein, reckons Wendover.
“It’s about timing, and the timing is unbelievably appropriate right now. As the world’s population expands, as people have increasingly more access to disposable income – jumping up to USD 350 per month – their spend changes, and their dietary interests change. People are interested in healthy, affordable protein and they would like to know where it comes from and how it was produced. There is a tipping point for change and Cargill sees that. It’s the moment for seafood.”
As an integrated protein supply chain company, with capabilities across the seafood supply chain and value chains – from farm to fork and also pre-farm with raw materials, Cargill is extremely well positioned to play in that space, said Wendover. But it has also recognised that it needs to change in the ways that it does business, especially when it comes to new technologies.
“We are never going to come up with the latest sensor or the latest new technology. Our role is to facilitate that into the ecosystem – to allow farmers to regularly adopt these technologies and most importantly, to not be scared of it. And then to be able to use that technology across the supply chain to make sure that it benefits all and that you can cut out inefficiencies and have those positive outcomes.”
As a large corporate entity, Cargill has embraced the start-up culture and people, he said.
“What we’ve done is we’ve isolated divisions to be able to work with those small start-up companies and to not have the red tape and bureaucracy. So the small companies can work with us. We don’t necessarily need to take equity. We’ve done that in the past, we’ve also done a ton of commercial deals, and those are very effective…the counterparty can get a flavour, an understanding, and a level of confidence, comfort and trust in us prior to taking that relationship to new levels.
“Cargill is not one giant behemoth, it’s almost like a holding company of 75 different companies. There’s a lot of accountability in the peripheries and that allows it to stay very agile. That’s why it has been around for 150 years.
“I’m very excited about our future, especially to see some of these small tech companies really driving their footprint into the industry.”
And Wendover’s key advice to tech companies wanting to approach Cargill is to own their space.
“We would partner with someone and we would be interested when they have a capability that we don’t have that would allow us to have a 1+1=3 type of mentality. We don’t necessarily want to do or own what you do. We want you to own and do what you do, and that’s why we are interested. But you need to be very clear on what it is that you do own, and what it is that you do,” he said.
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