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Farmed salmon needs digitization to avert the next crisis

The salmon industry can come out of the COVID-19 crisis not only economically strong, but with more effective and sustainable systems.


Originally published on

We’re in an unprecedented time in history. Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has confined companies to home offices with meetings, transactions and decisions made virtually. For the food industry, national quarantines and closed restaurants have dramatically shifted buying patterns. Logistics are more expensive, and farmers are facing unpredictable prices and demand.

But the aquaculture industry is used to adapting. Aquaculture farmers have been on the front line of the climate crisis, maneuvering severe weather, disease, and mass mortality events. Now, they are on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis, helping to keep the essentials moving and make sure people have access to healthy food during a global shutdown.

Already, many companies have shifted production to meet evolving needs, such as diverting fresh fish to processed or frozen products for homes and grocery stores.

Right now, there is even less room for error.

Farmers need to know when change is happening on the farm and make quick, informed decisions using minimal staff. During the COVID-19 pandemic—and moving forward after—this means automatic, remote farm management and risk detection is no longer a nice-to-have, it will make or break businesses.

Early in my career, I worked at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) building systems to monitor and assess medicine for unforeseen infectious diseases.

We found that for entire countries to mitigate and prevent future outbreaks, this digital infrastructure is critical.

A small sample of user testimonials doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. COVID-19 has shown we need to assess and test at scale—and the same can be said for decisions on the farm.

In both public health crises and disease outbreak on the farm, every day matters.

On Dec. 31, Canadian outbreak risk software company BlueDot was able to alert its clients of an unusual form of coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China—nine days before the World Health Organization reported it—using artificial intelligence (AI).

In this pandemic, nine days is a lifetime. While new robots, cameras, drones, lasers and sensors are becoming available, AI remains an underutilized tool for salmon farmers.

But the Norwegian salmon industry is already ahead of agricultural industries across the world. Effective AI solutions require many different data inputs, and the country’s strict regulations and documentation have built a strong base of data to feed these models.

The more data these models have, the more accurate they will get. This means that the more farms, areas and regions that come together to mitigate risk, the better prepared all farms can be when a disaster is coming.

As farmers are confined to the indoors and many employees are out of commission, the industry still needs to feed the world. Many still need to do their jobs despite a global shutdown.

Digital tools can facilitate farm management with fewer workers on site—and predict when another crisis may unfold.

How the industry maneuvers this time provides an opportunity.

The salmon industry can come out of this crisis not only economically strong but with more effective and sustainable systems.

At a time when public opinion of the salmon industry is at an all-time low, this is an opportunity to boost the industry’s reputation, as well.

"We can build a really good response system," Bill Gates said of the world's response to the Ebola epidemic in 2014.

"We have the benefits of all the science and technology … We've got cell phones to get information from the public and get information out to them."

The salmon industry, too, has the data and technology to get ahead of the next crisis—and we need to start now.

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