Cultural bonds with animal
Australia's bond with sheep farming
China's big bet on pork
As much a part of Scotland as the waterways that intersect this great landscape, salmon is worth just shy of US$1 billion to the national economy, and exports reached a record high last year.
And yet this is a relatively young industry; Chris’s role as veterinarian on this salmon farm simply didn’t exist a generation ago.
“We’ve only been farming salmon for 30 or 40 years, compared to terrestrial species, which have been farmed for thousands of years,” he says.
“That means there's a lot of health challenges that we still have to unravel and understand.”
His colleague Ben Perry is a researcher trying to do just that. Ben is another of the 1,500 people across Scotland employed in aquaculture, and brims with enthusiasm for his work.
The location probably helps; Ben’s purpose-built lab is tucked into the shoreline of Ardtoe in the north-west of Scotland, where great peaks rear up on either side of this dark expanse of water.
I eat the salmon produced here and I feed it to my children, so there is a lot of belief in the product that we're helping to support.”Benjamin James Perry, Fish medicines researcher
“Scottish salmon has a status all of its own,” he explains.
“We're farming fish in pristine waters here in a very positive way, so it's fantastic to see that product spread globally, because we here do believe in it.
“I eat the salmon produced here and I feed it to my children, so there is a lot of belief in the product that we're helping to support.”
Healthy fish are the lifeblood of this farm, which is one of more than 250 farms that together make up this major contribution to the Scottish economy. Atlantic salmon production is now the region’s largest food export.
“It’s hugely important to the economy and to the communities where we work,” says Ben.
While salmon is as synonymous with Scotland as its centuries-old whisky production, this farm is not a place in thrall to traditional methods. Casual conversations with Ben’s team are peppered with excited digressions on new vaccinations, diagnostics, and nutrition for this iconic fish.
Each fish here is rigorously checked by a team of veterinarians, and an in-house biologist informed of anything out of the ordinary.
Chris’s language is not unlike that of a dairy farmer’s care for a herd, despite the sheer weight of numbers.
“You look after them as eggs, you take them through to smolt size, and there's a lot of work [that] goes into it,” he says.
“You care for your fish. It's like any farmer, just look after them properly, as best you can.”
While the status of Scottish salmon is unique, this inextricable link between animals and culture can be seen all over the world. Half a world away from Scotland, the economic health of an entire continent relies on a single type of livestock.
“They say Australia rides on the sheep’s back,” says Research Scientist Aleta Knowles from her gleaming animal health research facility in the dry desert north of Sydney, Australia.
Aleta and her team move with confidence through their laboratory throughout the day. Each test and experiment brings them a step closer to a new medicine that could support the rural backbone of the nation.
“Sheep are an iconic species, and they have quite a romantic history here. We’re the number one wool producer in the world and number two for sheep meat,” Aleta continues.
“I’m really proud of my place in that industry and the role I play is to help ensure its future by having healthy livestock.”
Just as in Scotland, the iconic legacy of this industry doesn’t inhibit innovation. In the foothills of the Otway Ranges, Jill Stewart produces prime lamb on a family farm that’s unafraid to depart from tradition. A former veterinary nurse, she’s diversified into dog training, but she has bigger ambitions.
“What makes me feel happy about being a sheep producer is that we're trying to produce our sheep off this property in a sustainable manner,” she explains.
I mean, if you have animals that are underweight or not in good health, they're more likely to pick up diseases or be more susceptible to worms or things like that – so it’s really important to us to keep the sheep in really good condition.”
“They need to have their vaccinations and their de-worming and everything else. I think it's the basis of having animals – if you're going to have an animal, you ought to look after it properly.”
In China, where it’s said that ‘pork and grains make a stable society’, veterinarian Renna Zhang works in very different setup. In this entirely indoor operation, corrugated steel meets rubber matting and great troughs of feed.
This sense of scale is perhaps inevitable in a country that consumes more pork than any other on the planet. Half of the world’s pigs are raised in China, where pork is the basis of some of its most iconic dishes; in Chongqing, just a few miles from the farm, diners tuck into timeless Sichuan dishes interlaced with spicy peppers and wok-fried pork.
Back at the farm, the promise at the gates is “to be the most efficient in China”, yet Zhang takes similar pride in her contribution to the bigger picture.
“The price of pork is very important to stabilise overall prices,” she explains. “If [the] pork price increases, so will the prices of other goods.”
An important component of this stability is healthy animals and the control of disease, something the Government in Beijing has better acknowledged since the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention opened in 2006.
“We have noticed the trend of an increase in the number of large-scale farms in recent years,” Renna explains as she looks out onto her vast facility.
The practices and locations are wildly diverse, but it seems there's a shared pride in the people behind the produce”Renna Zhang,Veterinarian
“And a decrease in the number of fragmented and small farms, as the government places more emphasis on food safety and price stability.”
While India is expected to surpass China as the most populous country on the planet, there are still 1.3bn mouths to feed (and rising). It’s small wonder that Beijing is investing in food security. And improving access to veterinarians and reliable medicines from global suppliers will need to form the foundation.
“We believe the roller-coaster style of price change will never return in the future,” says Zhang.
“We are working towards the goals of achieving the economy of scale and a high quality product offering, which will greatly contribute to the stable and sustainable development of society.”
Whether it’s north Atlantic salmon, prime lamb, or the pork that fuels the biggest population on Earth, the foods we eat are woven into our culture and our everyday lives.
The practices and locations are wildly diverse, but it seems there’s a shared pride in the people behind the produce.