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A data-driven approach to sustainable shrimp production

By Laura Higham of FAI Farms

Ralf Onken, Director of Data Development at FAI, explains how working with shrimp producers to manage key performance and sustainability metrics can improve transparency and accountability in the sector.

Can you explain your work in the Asian shrimp farming sector?

I’m currently working with shrimp producers in the Chumpon, Surathani and Rayong regions in Thailand to develop management advice and tools to reduce the potential impact of disease outbreaks, through establishing early warning systems.

The ‘My SHRImp’ database collates and presents information from multiple sources, enabling farmers and industry managers to reduce disease outbreaks at individual farm and area-level through improved farm management and coordinated action.

Within the mobile shrimp diagnostic programme running in Thailand, we have increasing farmer engagement and accelerating momentum. The efficient use of the right tools in analysing samples and data reduces the time needed to make critical decisions. The tools are user-friendly and simple in input, but powerful in their output.

Putting the right tools in to the farmers’ hands will give them the greatest control they have ever had over their stocks. The aligned use of mobile analytical tools now will help us all achieve the strategic velocity and efficiency needed in farm management and production.

What are the key benefits of using data tools?

I believe data tools can serve two related goals: increasing transparency and trust across the food chain, and helping producers drive improvements on their farms.

Producers often use manual data sheets to record information. This means that this information cannot be analysed and put to use easily. This presents a major opportunity for us to help standardise, record, analyse and share data in a way that will both drive well-informed action, create best practice and generate transparency and trust between different actors in the food chain. It removes the “guesswork” from farming - it becomes much more predictable over time and farmers can follow their data in real time and act quickly.

Data also offers the opportunity for producers, retailers and regulators to compare themselves to others, and to stand up and present evidence-based statements and stories about their results and outcomes, thus increasing transparency. Data and technology are empowering in this way, giving producers a level of control that they may not have had previously.

How can you promote standardisation and sharing of data?

It often requires a cultural change to train people to collect the data and proactively respond to it. A practical example of this is the use of screening for particular diseases. In the shrimp industry we are working with producers using mobile diagnostic tools to identify diseases. This information, together with environmental and production data including temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, mortality, feed information and growth, helps to build a picture of factors that could lead up to a particular disease outbreak.

In some food production systems prophylactic treatment of antibiotics is often common practice, meaning medicines are used before there is a disease outbreak. This can increase the risk of antibiotic resistance developing. Through better recording and use of screening data, producers can begin to predict and prevent diseases, and thereby reduce their prophylactic antibiotic use.

Standardisation also allows farmers to be measured and benchmarked against each other to help identify where key challenges as well as best practice may exist.

By far the hardest element is information sharing. People are naturally cautious about sharing their data but once we show them the insights they can gain from recording and tracking it, they are able to see the benefits. For me, the most important element is building trust with our clients, protecting their data and ensuring the outcome allows them to better manage and grow their business.

What are your long term goals in the industry?

There are two things I’d like to see and they’re both focused on transparency.

Firstly, I’d like open dialogues with the farmers on market prices, as well as on challenging topics like diseases, welfare, treatment and antimicrobial use. Secondly, I’d like to encourage sharing information across the whole supply chain – from producer to consumer. At the moment citizens don’t know where their products come from and farmers don’t know where their products go. By bridging these two ends of the supply chain through better data management, we can create greater transparency, which in turn allows consumers to make more informed buying decisions and farmers to be rewarded for sustainable production: that’s a win-win.