Our food supply needs to double by mid-century to feed a growing population, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Even with continued productivity improvements, it’s unlikely terrestrial agriculture will meet our needs, especially for protein. Aquaculture – fish farming – should be an important part of the solution. Farmed fish will account for two-thirds of the fish we eat by 2030, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
While there’s certainly a lot of farmed fish being sold, North American consumers still express a preference for wild-caught fish. According to a February 2015 survey conducted for Seattle-based fish vendor The Fishin’ Co. and Global Aquaculture Alliance, 47 percent of consumers have a negative view of farm-raised seafood, expressing concerns about product quality, food safety and environmental impacts. Consumers continue to purchase farmed fish because it’s widely available and costs less than wild – but how much more farmed fish would be sold if perceptions were improved?
I recently participated in a panel discussion on “Consumer Acceptance and the Role of Aquaculture in our Food Future,” at the Seafood Expo North America in Boston. Fellow panelists included Jacqueline Claudia, CEO of Love the Wild, a brand of ready-to-prepare fish entrees paired with bold sauces; Josh Goldman, CEO and co-founder of Australis, the world’s largest barramundi producer; and Neil Sims, marine biologist and co-founder of Kampachi Farms. The panel was moderated by Scott Nichols, founder of Food’s Future, an advisory firm focused on creating a sustainable food supply. Nichols formerly was a director of Verlasso, a brand of harmoniously raised salmon from Patagonia, and a one-time Linhart PR client.
Given the growing volume of farmed fish being consumed and the tremendous progress aquaculture has made in addressing product quality and sustainability, it’s tempting to say that everything is fine, and that as wild-caught fish become ever-more expensive, consumers naturally will turn to farmed fish more often. My view is that every pound of farmed fish sold means less pressure on threatened wild stocks, a much lower carbon footprint and more efficient feed conversion ratio than other protein sources. That’s why more needs to be done to drive consumer acceptance. Building demand for farmed fish also could help fish farmers earn improved pricing, securing a greater return on their investments of time and capital.
My prescription for increasing consumer acceptance of aquaculture is four-fold:
- Continue to work toward a better understanding of consumer perceptions, and keep it current. The survey referenced above is a useful baseline but sample size was limited, especially when different demographics are considered, and the results already are more than a year old. Consumer perceptions can shift quickly in response to news coverage, social media discussion and activist campaigns.
- Create a unified voice for aquaculture, reaching North American consumers. The perceived superiority of wild-caught fish is driven by well-funded marketing campaigns from organizations ranging from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to agenda-driven advocacy groups. Today, when aquaculture is attacked, the response – if any – comes from a small handful of farmed seafood brands, supportive NGOs and sympathetic influencers. But there’s no strong unifying voice for aquaculture, to align messages and drive strategies for changing consumer perceptions.
- Invest in telling the aquaculture story. We know from experience that marketing and communications budgets for farmed fish brands are small and in some cases are getting smaller. When multiple producers spend modest amounts in uncoordinated efforts, the impact is diluted and inefficient. Some audience participants at SENA suggested the creation of a “farmed fish check-off” program to fund communications and marketing on behalf of the category, similar to check-off programs for dairy, beef and other commodities.
- Adopt a more positive, optimistic tone and message. Aquaculture practices have undergone an enormous transformation in recent years, so the industry has a much better story to tell than in the past. But all too often, the industry’s tone and message remain defensive and jargon-laden, more focused on attacking critics and refuting accusations about legacy issues and less focused on delivering cohesive, aligned, consumer-friendly messages about delicious fish – and an industry with the potential to meet a substantial part of the world’s future food needs in a sustainable way.