Reflections from a Danish Perspective
This is an Op-Ed I was asked to do some years ago for the European Aquaculture Journal, when I was working with DHI Water & Environment. It has current interest because I have been asked by EuroChile to go to Puerto Montt and discuss these matters.
R/D is very important for any industry. However, it is also important, that publicly financed R/D effort is evaluated carefully to see, if it fits the Industry's needs and is conducted in an efficient and timely manner. EU has started the IMPACT FISH project to do just that, and by this note in the EAS journal I would like to present a few points to the IMPACT FISH process seen from a Danish perspective.
When evaluating the R/D effort it is necessary to acknowledge, that the economy of any industry depends on many factors: market, production technology, financing, management, public image, environment and ethics. As we all know, a chain is not stronger than its weakest link, which means that we have to look at the weakest factors of an industry at a given time in its development to further the needs of the industry in the best possible manner. It's my view, that R/D is not at all the weakest link for the aquaculture industry at exactly this stage.
Aquaculture & Environment
A major problem for the aquaculture industry all over the world is a skewed public image based on misleading, disproportionate information about the environmental impacts from the industry. This situation is caused by NGO's and sometimes even public authorities painting a bleak picture of aquaculture production as being particularly damaging to the environment. Sure, as any other food production in the world, aquaculture is impacting the environment. But the fact is, that modern industrialised aquaculture is more ecological efficient measured in land use and nutrient loss, than most traditional types of food production, and it would be very beneficial for the global environment, if large parts of food production were moved from land to water and from fisheries to aquaculture.
In Denmark, this image problem has caused a situation, where only one new significant permit for increased fish production has been given out in about 15 years. The production has consequently stagnated to a level of about 40.000 ton fish/yr, which is a respectable 8 kg pr. capita, compared to the world average of 6. A normal growth in these 15 years would however have increased the production to 100-200.000 tons / yr. and by this misguided restrictiveness; the Danish society has missed an export value corresponding to the value of a Great Belt bridge (about 4 billion Euros).
Sure, the R/D community has been positive part of a development, where the industry through its food companies and its own steady increase in management capabilities have reduced the waste of nitrogen from a kg fish produced with a factor 3 in 30 years.
A negative role is unfortunately being played by the public R/D community using this environmental controversy to exaggerate problems and to ask for funds for "reinventing the wheel". The fact of the matter is that environmental impact R/D for aquaculture is highly redundant. Most of the relative trivial problems related to discharges from fish farms are well known, and good monitoring and modelling tools exist. What is really needed is not R/D for analysing the impacts, but R/D with the aim of reducing them.
The R/D public research community could help much by being outspoken and giving realistic and proportionate information about aquaculture and environment to the public. This would pave the way for an increased aquaculture production, which is beneficial as well for a high quality food supply as for the environment. As of now the aquaculture industry, at least in Denmark, is in a catch 22 situation:
It cannot be allowed to produce more fish because of environmental restrictions, which it cannot afford to solve, because it cannot be allowed to produce more fish.
Modern industrialized aquaculture is a knowledge intensive industry. Not as some may think, a low technology production, which anybody can do (put some fish in a net or pond, feed them, harvest them and smile all the way to the bank), but on the contrary a high technology, high risk industry with a high added value pr. employee working in the production. For this reason the industry needs a modern attitude to R/D and because of the rapid structural changes in the industry, a rapid professionalization with respect to R/D is fortunately happening
There are however, some cultural attitudes as well among the farmers as among the researchers with makes this transition unnecessarily slow.
The aquaculturists are closely related to their cousins on land: the agriculturalists, and share some of the same attitudes. First of all they don't like academics too much, all farmers know that if his son/daughter is not smart enough to take over the family farm, he/she must stoop to be a clergyman, a doctor or heaven forbid a teacher. So an academic is for an aquaculturist someone, who is sitting at a desk doing very little, taking no risks and earning good money.
Furthermore, the food production community, which calls itself liberal, have for ages been weaned on to public handouts (see the EU CAP situation) and has great difficulties with the concept of financing and thereby controlling its own R/D, like the classical industrial producers have done for a long time. Actually, aquaculture is much less subsidised than agriculture, but this attitude is still present.
The researchers do not help much either. Fundamentally, they do not understand the industry very well, and often they get into an "undertaker" type of business, where production or environment troubles are used as pretext for applying for R/D money, which then are used for business as usual: Many man-months of projects, which may help the researchers to publish more, but not the producers to produce more fish. This goes on to the extent, that we are in Denmark looking at a reverse pyramid, with very few companies and people doing the actual production, and many institutions and individuals getting research grants on behalf of an industry, which can barely survive.
Furthermore, the researchers do not to a sufficient degree understand and respect the practical innovation, which takes place at all aquaculture installations, and without which the farmers could not survive. Sure, it is a good thing to use scientific methods in the development of production methods, and any industry should strive towards that goal, but in the real world, if your fish are dying, you can't do controlled experiments, you have to do something, and you have to do it now.
The existing R/D is furthermore dominated by the traditional biological community and the fish pathologists. Sure these issues are important, but other issues like sociology/image, management, economy, off-shore construction, recirculation technology, IT technology, genetic engineering may be just as important. Particularly, the R/D community is in love with new species, even if it is extremely likely, that the production of aquatic animals will be relying on a few species, exactly like for terrestric animals.
Finally, the research is too far from the real world and too loosely connected to the farmers. In countries, like Norway, where there are more than sufficient funds available for aquaculture research, the projects are inflated to take in too many persons and take much too long time. The real limiting factor for aquaculture research is not money, but good ideas and competent serious researchers, who work in a timely way towards the same goal as the industry, that is to produce fish according to market demands in the most economically and ecologically efficient manner.
Yes, There Is a Future for Aquaculture R/D
The aquaculture industry should, like other modern industries, gradually take full responsibility for and pay its own research in full. It can expect from EU and the national states, that framework conditions are established, which makes it possible for the industry to produce according to market demands, and without giving unfair competitive advantages to farmers in other parts of the world. It should furthermore ask for increased funding for state-of-the art basic research in relevant fields to secure the production of relevant basic knowledge and competent researchers, which can go to well paid jobs in the industry laboratories. In this I see a declining role for public organisations doing applied research and development, which is much better placed in the industry itself.
In the transition period and even after, there is still room for public / private partnerships doing research projects using among other EU funds. It is however extremely important, that the industry is taking the drivers seat as well for initiating as for choosing the right R/D projects.
Aquaculture is a food production industry of the future, and as well the researchers as the industry can gain much from forward looking and innovative research, when the right framework is established.