November 1st 2019

IT is easy for anyone to take a hasty - and understandable - dislike to the United Nations, particularly those who have tried to wander around the UN's campus in New York.

If anything is going on there, roads are shut off, officious members of the NYPD stand, pompous and shouting while convoys of identical black SUVs with smoked glass windows hurtle past pedestrians squeezed into street corners.

A talking shop, a job creation scheme, a sop to the west - all these accusations have been thrown at the organisation and yet, dig a little deeper and there is lot underneath the surface. Indeed, a lot of work is being done - and has been done - to make the world a better place and, crucially for our sector, to feed the world.

One example of this is the snappily titled 'Perceptions and Misconceptions of Aquaculture by the Globefish Research Programme of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations'.

This report is quite dusty. It was published in 2015 and only reached my attention when it was flagged up by a colleague.

But it addresses the central conundrum facing aquaculture in general - and salmon farming in particular - which is this.

The world needs aquaculture to feed its growing population yet anti-farming campaigners in developed western nations are trying to undermine its potential everywhere, including in the developing world, where it is most needed.

This is extremely frustrating for the UN which knows how important aquaculture is going to be. It is the future of food production: it is as simple as that.

Consumption of aquaculture seafood overtook wild-caught seafood in 2014 but it has to rise to at least 62 per cent of global consumption by 2030 if we are going to feed the world.

As this report makes clear, the vast bulk of aquaculture production takes place in Asia yet opposition is strongest in the western world.

This UN-commissioned report expresses exasperation at the "perception gap" that exists in the west between the way aquaculture is carried out and public understanding of the sector and the way it operates now.

It insists that the critics - and their criticisms - should be taken seriously but that we have to champion the good environmental story we have to tell, locally and globally.

The report is interesting in a variety of ways but it is also reassuring. It is reassuring because it shows that we, in Scotland, are not facing the challenges presented by our critics alone.

The issue of perception gap, of ill-informed critics trying to sway consumers without the full facts, of unsubstantiated claims based on erroneous knowledge and a short-termist, parochial attitude: these are all widespread.

Not only that, but they are recognised and criticised by a UN body in an international report.

It is also reassuring in that it provides a blueprint, of sorts, for how this misinformation should be tackled.

It advocates a long-term solution based on openness and transparency, of an aquaculture sector championing its role in protecting rural coastal communities and the comparative benefits of fish farming over other forms of protein production while being open about the challenges it faces.

The authors of the report were well aware that the environmental movement, from Extinction Rebellion through to animal rights activism, is going to gather pace, if for no other reason than because it has become the cause du jour among the young - if only in the west.

The questions over the sustainability of fish meal and oil in feed, the impact of fish faeces on the ocean floor, the use of antibiotics and medicines and harvesting techniques are not going to go away.

But perhaps the most interesting lesson in the report comes from Germany where environmental concerns are centred on overfishing, particularly in the North Sea.

As a result, German consumers tend to see farmed fish as the more sustainable product of the two, giving it a level of environmental credibility it lacks elsewhere in the west.

This more enlightened German approach has not really spread to other parts of the developed world but there is no reason it shouldn't.

This central message, that if we want to save the wild fish in our seas then fish farming is the answer, should start to become more mainstream throughout the west in the coming years.

But at its heart, the UN report is really about openness and transparency. If we accept that much of the criticism of our sector is based on ignorance then the best way to counter that is to shout about what is really going on.

Sometimes this will involve difficult discussions over wild fish stocks and salmon feed or debates about medicine use or predator management but we shouldn't shy away from these.

That is because, over everything else, we have the most important story of all to tell: if we want to feed the world, then aquaculture is the answer.

The UN knows it, we know it, enlightened Germans appear to know it - its now just a question of making sure our critics across the rest of the developed world know it too.

This article by the SSPO's Hamish Macdonell first appeared in the November 2019 edition of Fish Farmer magazine.