South by Southwest (SXSW) is a major festival held annually in Austin, Texas, that allows attendees to explore what’s next in the worlds of film, culture, music, and technology.
The event attracts big names and large crowds -- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Lady Gaga and Barack Obama have been speakers -- and is as well-known these days for its peek into technologies of the future as it is for its musical guests and exploration of cultural trends.
It's the place to be for up-and-coming stars in the media and tech world in particular, and the star-struck attendees often bring the ideas that come out of the event back home to their social and work circles.
Believe it or not, aquaculture is on the agenda at the upcoming 2021 SXSW in March, which, as you might expect, is online this year because of COVID.
Along with featured sessions on how rockets are built and flown by fusing 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robotics, and the intersection of AI and national security, this year’s event explores "the context of the global climate crisis and aquaculture’s key role in transforming our food systems.”
The inclusion of aquaculture makes sense, of course, given its massive role in feeding a planet of 7.8 billion people and its low carbon footprint compared with terrestrial protein production.
It is certainly wonderful that aquaculture is getting such high-level attention, but I am not entirely in love with the panel that SXSW has chosen to discuss the topic.
I, of course mean no disrespect to any of the panelists – they all have interest in aquaculture – but I don’t consider them the best ambassadors for one of the most dynamic food production systems of modern times.
Aquaculture is a sector attracting billions in investment around the world. It utilizes some of the most advanced technology of any food system on the planet, and it provides sustainably produced seafood for the more than 1 billion people who rely on fish as a primary source of protein.
So who is on the panel?
Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, will be part of the discussion. She advocates for the restoration and sustainable management of the oceans as a senior advisor for NGO Oceana. She told IntraFish back in November 2019 that she fully supports aquaculture, “but it has to be done right.” She gets no argument there.
Celebrity Chef Andrew Zimmern is also on the panel. His primary connection to aquaculture is his past endorsement and promotion of Agrosuper’s premium brand of Verlasso farmed salmon and his current promotion of Kvaroy Arctic’s farmed salmon. Both products support the highest levels of sustainability, for sure.
Hollywood producer and salmon farmer David E. Kelley will also be aboard the panel. Kelley is founder and chairman of Riverence, a land-based aquaculture company producing steelhead trout in Idaho, and producing salmon eggs in Rochester, Washington. He certainly seems passionate about fish farming.
Rounding out the panel is Sarah Redmond, an organic seaweed farmer based in Maine.
Again, no disrespect to the panelists, but I believe there are other more qualified aquaculture professionals out there that could speak about the value of the sector, folks who live and breathe the business day in and day out. Executives who have helped nurture and grow the sector.
The event attempted to examine aquaculture in 2019 as well, assembling a panel that included Zimmern again, plus the Environmental Defense Fund's Rod Fujita, Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) Editorial Director James Wright and Fiona Lewis, a fishmonger in the Washington, DC area.
Notice anything missing? Sure you do: nobody on either panel is what I would call a household name in the aquaculture industry. They haven't actually grown any fish, and few have made a career in the seafood industry.
Given the incredible innovations happening in the sector, there is no shortage of potential speakers who could capture the real potential the sector holds for sustainable food production, and tell the story in a way that looks at the risks, challenges and incredible opportunities.
Speaking of GAA, what about George Chamberlain, one of the pre-eminent minds in shrimp aquaculture?
And how about an aquaculture expert from Norway, the world leader in salmon farming and cutting edge equipment. Perhaps someone such as Ole-Eirik Leroy, chairman of Mowi, the world's largest salmon farmer. Leroy's family stretches back in seafood for generations.
Or how about Cargill Aqua Nutrition President Pilar Cruz or Skretting CEO and IntraFish's 2020 Person of the Year Therese Log Bergjord? Both executives are at the forefront of sustainable seafood feed and are some of the best ambassadors the industry has to offer.
Or maybe Brian Vinci, director of the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute, a non-profit research and development group focusing on land-based sustainable aquaculture, the hottest trend in aquaculture today.
All of these folks would provide a realistic and honest assessment of where the global aquaculture sector is at the moment and where it is headed in the future.
There are hundreds of other names I could suggest, but my point is that the global aquaculture sector is considered one of the most dynamic food production industries in the world right now, and if it is going to be showcased at an influential event such as SXSW, the sector's best and brightest should be carrying the torch for the industry.
But before we go blaming the tattooed hipsters that put on the event for not choosing the "right" speakers, the industry should ask itself the question: if we want our story told so badly, and told in the right way, what are we doing to get on those stages? The influencers who shape the public's views of the sector won't come knocking on your door -- the industry has to go out and open doors of their own.
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