Aquaculture – Ripe for Disruption

Businesses growing in the deep

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is an integral part of countless economies worldwide. However, unless you actually work in the industry, you’re unlikely to know exactly what it is. Humanity has been involved in aquaculture ever since we began to farm, because that’s exactly what it is – underwater farming.

Just as agriculture has benefited from innovative solutions, aquaculture is set to do the same. Precision technologies are beginning to streamline the farming of aquatic creatures, from advanced analytics to new material development. According to research from AgFunder, aquaculture investment reached $52 million during 2014 and 2015 combined. Last year this number rose to $193 million, which is a sure sign that things are changing for aquafarming. But just how is this surge of investment disrupting the industry, and just how important is it for global economies?

The importance of aquaculture

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that aquaculture is responsible for the livelihoods of 820 million people across the globe. In an economic sense, it’s incredibly vital for that reason alone. Within the industry, work includes producing and selling equipment, harvesting, processing, marketing and distribution. Since the 1960s, fish consumption has doubled. In the US alone, people eat over six million tonnes of seafood per year. As well as fuelling economies, aquaculture provides the foundations for entire ecosystems. Improving the quality of aquatic environments has a knock on effect on the food chain, leading to cleaner and more manageable natural surroundings. Other underwater organisms like algae are also promising for medical applications and even energy production. With this in mind, it’s surprising that investment levels aren’t higher. However, after the huge increase in 2016, it looks as if this is about to change. Startups are now looking to take advantage of a market ripe for disruption, resulting in the protection of global economies and greater efficiency in fisheries. Alternative methods and equipment are already beginning to revolutionise traditional aquatic farming. For example, data analytics can help make informed predictions based on previous harvests. Advanced robotics – including underwater drones, soft robots and automated machines – can carry out repetitive, strenuous or dangerous manual jobs. Drones are also being used in Africa to publicise aquaculture and raise awareness of the challenges it faces. The real question is if technology can help to solve these problems, and what it means for the industry as a whole.

Disruption in aquaculture

Disrupting aquaculture could be hugely positive in many ways. Firstly, it could improve production levels. Aquaculture is hugely reliant on nature for good yields, but data analytics could help fisheries make more informed decisions to improve output. By creating more food, innovative aquaculture would help to alleviate world hunger. This isn’t just due to volume. Fish are six times more efficient at converting feed than cattle, meaning that fish farming is considerably more economic. New technology could also create a safer working environment by doing risky or difficult tasks. Another side effect of changes in aquaculture is the encouragement of AgTech (agricultural technology), which will be instrumental in preparing for an overpopulated future. However, changes in aquaculture are also likely to have negative consequences. Millions of people make a living from the industry, whether that be in harvesting, distribution or marketing. Automation would therefore have a devastating effect on employment. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, smaller fisheries already struggle to meet their targets and are forced to depend on unpaid family labour. If major aquaculture companies decide to innovate and adopt new methods, the divide between large and small fisheries would become even greater. A further continual issue with aquaculture is overfishing. If fish harvests increase, the number of fish left to farm will obviously decrease. Regulations need to be put in place to ensure that innovative fishing doesn’t do more harm than good to ecosystems.

As demand for food provision increases, it seems logical to look to farming as a focus for technological development. Aquaculture is particularly promising, as fish are a particularly efficient food source. It isn’t all about the fish, either. Aquatic plants could help to find effective treatments for healthcare, create new energy options and inspire developments in bioscience. Before aquaculture can realise its full potential, though, there are some serious considerations to be made. For instance, how will automated systems impact employment? Will technology make overfishing an even greater problem? Concerns aside, improving aquaculture could be hugely beneficial on a global scale.

Will innovative solutions bring stability to the volatile aquaculture industry? How far will disrupted aquaculture effect the growing food crisis? Could the adoption of new methods kill off small fisheries? Comment below with your thoughts.