"I feel it is timely for seafood narratives in the UK to become more personal, helping the consumer to connect with seafood." Reflections on the ARCH-UK Annual Science Event 2019 by Benjamin Kao, SAIC Aquaculture Innovation Summer Intern
As a part of my internship at SAIC, my fellow intern Patricija and I attended the ARCH-UK Annual Science Event 2019 in Stirling on June 26 and 27. It was eye-opening to be able to listen to academics discuss cutting-edge aquaculture research. The event was important because of the opportunity for various stakeholders within aquaculture in the UK to come together and discuss collaboration opportunities and industry trends.
There were two keynote talks on seafood consumption from a retail perspective, and new paradigms in invertebrate health and disease. Each ARCH-UK Working Group had a session of talks and discussion. I attended the sessions on Finfish Nutrition, Knowledge Exchange, Creating Economic Growth with Social Acceptability, and Environment, Climate Change and Capacity. These sessions were interesting to me because they reflected my diverse academic interests.
In this article, I will reflect primarily on the social scientific aspects of the discussions that were had. These aspects were particularly fascinating to me because – while these topics are not within the traditional remits of scientists, which the event was geared towards – they show the potential for interdisciplinary collaborations within academia in order to support the aquaculture industry.
Traditionally, fisheries and aquaculture have been grouped together because they both deal with fish as a product. However, it was noted during the discussion in the session about social acceptability and the economic viability of aquaculture, that aquaculture has more in common with agriculture than fisheries. Both industries are concerned with precision farming of food and, to a certain extent, they compete with one another. People at the event brought up the integration of agriculture into communities as an example of something that aquaculture can emulate. Agriculture has had centuries to make this sort of impact on communities and popular culture, and for aquaculture, integration will take time. Although the previous statement holds true, the benefits of living in an era of the internet and social media in accelerating integration cannot be underestimated. For aquaculture, a more thorough understanding of the agriculture sector may be helpful in ascertaining moves that can be made for this streamlined integration of aquaculture into communities and for improving public perception.
The conversations occurring in multiple sessions, on public perceptions of aquaculture in the UK and how to influence media narratives, is a point that is worthy of further discussion. From the event, it is clear to me that marketing and perception are among the top of the industry’s concerns going forward. Producers have a stake in considering consumer purchasing behaviour. Increasing capacity is as much a technological, economic, and environmental issue as it is a marketing issue. A cursory look by experts at the event notes that one issue in the UK is the low per capita consumption of seafood – which I would frame using sociologist Elizabeth Shove’s three Cs: Comfort, Cleanliness, and Convenience.
The topic of UK seafood consumption was brought up during the keynote talk by Sainsbury’s Ally Dingwall in the first day of the event, and also in the session on social acceptability and economic viability of aquaculture in two of the talks (by Professor Rachel Norman and marketer Karen Galloway). The speakers noted that the consumption of seafood and, by extension, fish, is seen as a primarily middle-class endeavour. Other protein alternatives like chicken, pork, beef or even vegan options, are cheaper than seafood and considered more filling. Many consumers believe that seafood is less convenient to prepare at home and leaves a lingering smell. As a result, many consumers would choose seafood when they are dining out (i.e. fish and chips) but not as a part of their regular diets. Consumers in the UK also have clear favourite species for consumption and are less comfortable with trying new species of seafood. While there is value in being considered as a dish for special occasions, this is not conducive to increasing the ubiquity of seafood in diets. From a sociological perspective, seafood consumption considerations align with Shove’s three Cs. If seafood marketing targets consumer concerns regarding the three Cs, there may be further changes in seafood consumption behaviour.
This line of discussion was picked up again in the finfish nutrition and social acceptability and economic viability of aquaculture sessions. From an aquaculture perspective, the health benefits of eating fish may need to be emphasised to the public in marketing narratives. Looking at the bigger picture, I think that there may be systemic issues that the food industry as a whole would need to address with regards to the public’s relationships with food in general. It can be argued that the current generation is ever disconnected from their food sources, which results in the valuing of lower prices and convenience over quality and health. It may take concerted efforts for systemic cultural change to occur. This challenge presents new opportunities for the aquaculture industry to widen its market share in the UK, if the sector can share narratives that influence UK seafood consumption.
I feel it is timely for seafood narratives in the UK to become more personal, helping the consumer to connect with seafood. Up until recently, economic arguments have taken centre stage in seafood stories. A salient example of the power of shifting narratives is Nestlé’s expansion into the coffee market in Japan in the 1970s. Nestlé hired a marketing consultant, Dr Rapaille, to create a strategy to break into the Japanese market. What the consultant noted was a need to break tea’s monopoly on Japanese beverage consumption. With this information, Nestlé introduced coffee-flavoured candy to create generations of cultural connections to coffee. Nestlé gained a strong foothold in the Japanese market through understanding the power of personal connections in driving consumption. Although not the sole factor influencing Japanese coffee consumption, it was a positive contributing element in consumer purchasing behaviour.
On reflection, aquaculture can learn from agriculture regarding community integration. Marketing and consumer perception of the seafood industry is important to producers as well as retailers. It may be a prerogative that stakeholders in the industry collaborate in order to create a positive narrative to share with the public. The issues involved with aquaculture creating a more integrated cultural connection are inevitably more complex than the beverage industry. Aquaculture needs to connect closely with the public ethical considerations that come with fish management, health, and welfare. Perhaps more consequentially, aquaculture deals with the topic of food security; a key issue that will affect millions around the globe. Further integration of aquaculture into communities directly affected by the industry, or the redesign of a cohesive marketing strategy, may be possible trajectories to take. Regardless, there may be room for more collaboration between academia and industry in order to devise innovative methods to increase aquaculture’s social capital.