It’s very easy in the seafood sector to get stuck in a world of inter-competitiveness -- of being the biggest shrimp processor, the first offshore salmon farmer, the most innovative pollock producer.
What is easy to forget when we talk about the growing need for protein is that who you are really competing against is not each other, but a huge and influential meat industry that delivers millions of tons of product per year into each and every market in the world.
Speaking last week to leading agronomists, I set out on a story that was supposed to be angled towards the massive opportunities laying in wait for the seafood sector in light of a global meat supply shock.
What I came away with, however, was not a delicious slice of optimism to deliver our readers, but a brutal dredging of reality that puts the cattle, poultry and swine industries firmly at the top of the protein pecking order, “meat supply shock” or not.
To these meat people, seafood is so far off the radar it almost doesn’t exist, and that reflects a far bigger challenge in the market.
I am not going to harp on about how seafood needs to be more creative in getting consumers interested – that is a challenge you all know well.
What I am going to harp on about, however, is scale, efficiency and agility because, my god, this is something the agriprotein sector has in bucket loads.
“The poultry guys can just build another shed,” said one US agronomist. Another described the swine industry as having greater efficiency than the airline sector. These operations are big, they are fast and they are agile.
This is something the seafood sector does not have. Its operations are a mere speck in the protein pool. Fish is produced at the speed it grows, with relatively little genetic improvement. And agility? It’s all a salmon farmer can do to harvest a full pen each period without significant losses from disease, sea lice, algal blooms, jellyfish or storms.
Market shifts generally mean a whole rethink of product format and should anyone want more fish, well that takes some planning and some licencing. We may have it for you in a couple of years.
There is much that is off-putting about mass-produced, factory-farmed meat, and I don't want to weigh into the genetics argument here, but the problem of flexibility still applies.
“It’s inelastic,” was how a Wells Fargo veteran agronomist put it to me. And he is right. While you would hope the one thing a small industry had on its side would be nimbleness, that's not so for seafood.
Why that is comes down to the nature of the product, of the production and it's relative youth as a mass-produced protein. It is also held to far higher environmental standards than many of its meat-producing counterparts.
For the meat industry, production can ramp up or down so quickly that even crisis as big as a global pandemic can be adjusted for. And while money may be lost in the short term, the juggernaut of the global meat industry regains lost ground quickly.
It is an unfair fight.
The sheer size of meat-producing companies enables them to lobby governments, plow millions into advertising campaigns and generally wield a power that the seafood industry could only dream of. The only solution, as my colleague Drew Cherry mentioned in our podcast last week, is the involvement of bigger protein companies into the chain.
We've said it before and we will say it again, seafood needs a Cargill, a Tyson, a Bayer, an ADM, a company with true scale and heft, to bring it with any confidence into the protein arena as a true competitor.
We've seen it begin with Asian conglomerates snapping up bits and pieces of the seafood chain, but until world salmon or shrimp production is owned and controlled by one of these giants, seafood may as well retire to the corner of the ring and save its strength.