Plenty of Fish in the Sea, Not Enough Fish on the Plate
Innovations Promote Broader Seafood Consumption in Sweden
In the Middle Ages, Northern Swedish fishermen had a very specific problem with their catch. They couldn’t afford the salt necessary to preserve the freshly caught fish through the harsh winter.
They came up with an ingenious solution: They buried the salmon in a hole in the ground—gravad lax in Swedish—covered it with birch bark and laid it in a mixture of water and the fish’s blood with some herbs sprinkled on top. And so, Scandinavia’s most famous dish—Gravlax—was invented.
Today’s culinary techniques have thankfully moved on, but the country’s practical approach to solving food-based issues has remained.
Sweden’s Surprising Seafood Problem
Modern Sweden has a new, equally complex seafood-related problem. A country with 2,000 miles of coastline, plus innumerable lakes and islands, actually imports three-quarters of the seafood it consumes. This includes 90% of all farmed fish that ends up on a Swedish plate.
Furthermore, of all Scandinavians, the Swedes are not only the lowest producers of farmed fish, but they also actually consume less fish than the amount recommended by the Swedish Food Agency.
So, how does this northern European country help guarantee its food security, spark the renaissance of its home-grown fish market, and simultaneously encourage people to eat more seafood? By applying modern technology and the same practical mindset that saw their forebears burying fish to preserve it.
Examples of the nation’s seafood ingenuity abound.
One project is called Five Tonnes of Green Fish on the Counter. It uses a novel method of making fish feed from insects fed on food waste.
Additionally, the company Musselfeed has turned dried blue mussel meat into both a healthy powder and flour. These products can be used as an ingredient in food, such as a seasoning for fish dishes or as part of a burger, as well as for animal feed applications.
The company Musselfeed has turned dried blue mussel meat into a healthy powder and flour to be used as a food ingredient for humans and animals.
Furthermore, researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology have developed a new sorting technology to tackle fish waste. Currently, more than half of a fish is discarded after the fillets are removed. But the new method processes five parts of the fish to produce new products such as nuggets and fish oil supplements. This technology is already being used by a commercial herring processor.
Last year, the Blue Food Centre received 48m Swedish kroner (about $4.7 million) from the Swedish Research Council, Formas. This marked the country’s largest single investment in a seafood initiative.
The goal is to achieve ten-fold growth and diversification in the aquaculture industry while tripling the use of raw seafood production materials. The center engages primary producers, fishermen, large fishing companies, restaurants, and retailers, and includes more than seventy different non-academic partners.
The initiative’s director, Professor Kristina Snuttan Sundell, who also works at the Department of Biology and Environmental Science at the University of Gothenburg, outlines their major goals: "We are working from responsible and innovative, question-driven research, together with the industry, so that we can get new innovations out there based on scientific facts. One of the main aims is not just to decrease the import of farmed fish per se, but to enhance our self-sufficiency regarding seafood in Sweden, in order to take better advantage of the bio-resources that we have."
She added: "As we have very low aquaculture production, as well as a poor use of landed wild fish for human food, we aim to meet the increasing seafood demands by increasing the aquaculture production on the one hand and more efficiently using landed seafood raw materials for food production on the other. However, this needs to be done sustainably."
She describes sustainability as the "overarching theme" of their work and says, "Several of our research groups focus on life-cycle analysis and other types of sustainability analyses in order to follow all the different research projects, innovations and procedures, following all three sustainability aspects; ecological, economical and societal. That is the whole basis of the work that we do."
"We need to increase the production of not just any food, but nutritious food, and seafoods have a lot of advantages in that respect."
And while low seafood consumption might seem a local Swedish issue, the Blue Food Centre is looking beyond their country's borders: "One of the global challenges that we have is we need to increase our food production in a sustainable way by not overloading the ecosystem, and we see seafood is a very strong candidate for doing that. We need to increase the production of not just any food, but nutritious food, and seafoods have a lot of advantages in that respect."
"This combines with another very important aspect, the health and well-being of our animals—it should be farmed in a way that is optimal for the different organisms. Any increased production of food needs to be ethically sound."
Broadening Sweden’s Dining Palate
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to persuade the Swedish population to widen their seafood palate, as they typically prefer to eat fish in its filleted form. "It will mean a change in eating culture as people need to become used to eating new food items," says Prof. Snuttan Sundell.
She adds: "Of today’s total seafood production in Sweden, less than 20% ends up on our plates. We would like to increase that to 60%."
One such change will be to encourage the consumption of fish that comes from freshwater fisheries in Sweden. Today, this fish source is mainly used as animal feed, but the Blue Food Centre is creating alternative ways of consuming these fish and other underutilized species: "The industry and researchers are working together to find new types of food products that can be marketed, like minced meat from fish to make burgers or fish meatballs, all kinds of different products from fish utilizing all parts of the fish, not only the fillets."
The sustainable approach taken by the Blue Food Centre dovetails with that of the not-for-profit organization, the Axfoundation. Madeleine Linins Mörner, who has been with the organization for over a decade, is the program director of its Future Food strand. She was also the lead on the Axfoundation’s Five Tonnes of Green Fish on the Counter program.
She explains the intriguing concept title: "We want to pick a pilot that was substantial in volume that would show this can really work in sales and decided ‘five tonnes, green fish’ because it’s environmentally friendly, and ‘on the counter’ because we wanted to end up where we meet the consumer."
"We wanted to show that whole value chain from the fish farmer to the consumer."
She adds the Axfoundation seeks to lift ideas off the researcher’s notebook and apply them to the real world. The goal is to be financially viable: "We want the solutions from our programs to be applied, which means someone has to think there is an upside to using them."
"We have to be very business savvy, that you can make money or save money, or you can build your brand but there has to be someone out there that thinks the solution is there and can be applied."
"We have our own holy trinity. Sustainability is the greatest pillar of all, then nutrition and taste."
Yet this real-world pragmatism can’t abandon environmental standards: "We have our own holy trinity. Sustainability is the greatest pillar of all, then nutrition and taste," says Ms. Linins Mörner. "It doesn’t matter if something is amazingly environmentally friendly and very good for your body if the taste is not palatable. Chefs are amazingly important, as are representatives of the market; it could be retailers or wholesalers depending on the project."
The Five Tonnes pilot looked at the contentious issue of farmed fish being fed a mixture of other wild-caught fish and soy, which means farmed fish actually damage the stocks of fish in the ocean. Ms. Linins Mörner says: "Our food shouldn’t eat our food. It’s better if our food eats the things we don’t want to or cannot eat."
"The idea here was to try and transform waste into a high-protein feed through insects, as they can be harvested after two weeks and are highly efficient."
The organization collected food waste from food and vegetable wholesalers. The food waste is mixed with bread and fed to black soldier fly larvae, which are "fantastic waste regenerators" and less fussy about what they eat compared to other insects. They quickly grew into healthy, high-protein, high-fat content feed. The feed was harvested and turned into pellets—the most usable form for the fish farmer—and fed to the fish, which were housed in land-based tanks.
She adds: "If the solution we create requires the user to invest in a whole new infrastructure, it’s not going to happen. You just have to make it easy as possible."
The next hurdles to overcome were size and flavor: "If the fish had grown less on this circular feed, it wouldn’t work. So, there were a lot of trials for the growth and health of the fish, but they actually grew more."
"Another really important thing is taste. We had a sensory panel of well-known and highly trained chefs. Our greatest fear was that it would taste worse, but it turned out it had better scores than other farmed fish. Perhaps because soy is not part of their natural diet, but insects are."
"That’s when we felt that we are on to something. We then produced on a larger scale, and they sold like hotcakes!"
Ms. Linins Mörner compares the two areas she works in as a delicate piece of cloth: "The food system and the ecosystem are both equally complicated, and you have to be sure of what you are doing as it is all interconnected."
"If you pull a thread in one corner, there’s going to be a rip in another corner, and you have to see those possible dangers."
With these innovations, it’s not hard to imagine a favorable future for fish-eating in Sweden. A restaurant kitchen may soon exist in Stockholm where the head chef is preparing a delicious dish of Gravlax made from a farmed salmon that was fed on pellets made from black soldier flies that were fed on food waste. In other words, consumers rediscovering the delicious world of seafood with zero environmental damage.
*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.