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Associate feature: Tech, food, and health will define the future, and Scotland can lead the way

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Associate feature: Tech, food, and health will define the future, and Scotland can lead the way

Around 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in a massive feat for human progress and ingenuity. In 2020 we continued to build on that legacy, with the launch of SpaceX’s manned space mission and Mars the new objective, another 78 million kilometres away.

Distance aside, perhaps the best measure of progress in the half-century that has since elapsed is the proliferation of the technology that took us to the moon in the first place. You can probably find an example in your pocket: the iPhones that around 100 million of us own are exponentially more powerful than the computer systems that guided Apollo 11 to its destination.

It’s incredible when you think about it, but there are countless examples of technology making its way from NASA to households. Memory foam, freeze-dried food, and air purifiers are perhaps unsurprising. However, food safety standards – influenced by the need for pathogen-free supplies in space – is perhaps a surprise inclusion.

That we can go into a restaurant or supermarket to buy food and have confidence in a level of provenance, quality, and reliability is largely taken for granted. Half a century ago that wasn’t the case – people were much more likely to become unwell from the food they ate, with seafood a common culprit. Lettuce is now much more likely to make you ill than oysters, according to the Food Standards Agency .

Like technology, food has become much more democratised. We are much less narrowly dependent on locally produced, seasonal food in our diets, and products once considered a luxury – such as Scottish salmon – are now on every supermarket shelf in fresh, frozen, smoked and ready-to-eat forms.

Improvements in the food system have undoubtedly led to a better quality of life for many people, but what gives us that level of assurance about what we eat? A significant part of it has been the introduction of government protections and guidelines, along with industry-led improvements to farm practices.

With farmed animals, we know they are raised in a certain quality of environment, with health, wellbeing, and hygiene standards. Indeed, in salmon’s case, Scotland is among the best in the world for animal welfare, with very high-standard husbandry practices developed since we first began farming fish almost 50 years ago.

As the world’s population grows in the decades to come, it will inevitably put pressure on food production and the need for sustainably sourced protein. Seafood will play an increasingly important role in fulfilling that demand, delivering the green and nature-rich economy of the future.

The use of robotics, big data, and internet of things (IoT) technologies will undoubtedly contribute to achieving that aim, underpinning the efficient management and maintenance of sustainable fish farms. They will also open up new opportunities in Scottish marine waters, of which we currently use less than 0.002% for aquaculture compared to the more than 73 per cent of Scotland’s land mass occupied by agriculture.

The species of fish we are able to grow through aquaculture is also likely to become more diverse. If the past 50 years have taught us anything, it’s that this needs to be done by working with nature, rather than against it, by using species best suited to their natural habitats and environments. Already around 300 species identified globally are farmed in water, from tilapia in Egypt and warm water prawns in Vietnam, to mussels in Shetland and salmon in Argyll.

Likewise, our body of research on fish health will continue to grow and we’re increasingly applying the lessons we have learned about human wellbeing to fish. The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined how interconnected the health of humans, animals and the environment is – a fact captured by the World Health Organisation’s ‘One Health’ initiative.

There have been some enormously positive breakthroughs in the past half-century, and there are more to come in the next 50 years. The convergence of technology, food, and health is likely to be a major theme and, with a rich heritage in each area, Scotland should embrace its opportunity to play a leading role on the global stage.

Heather Jones is CEO of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre

This piece was sponsored by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre

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