Op-ed: Don’t Look Up – Or do and consider how mass media shapes public perception of blue foods
Jennifer Bushman a strategic development consultant for the seafood industry and has worked with brands like Kvaroy Arctic, Verlasso, Love the Wild, and Blue Ocean Mariculture.
I’m sure that many of you have turned on Netflix and watched Don’t Look Up, but if not…spoiler alert!
Over the holidays, I decided to check it out – I was 1 hour, 51 minutes, and 42 seconds into the film, when Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Timothy Chalamet suddenly race down a grocery store aisle to shop for what will be their “last supper” before the end of the world.
The film has been described as an allegory for climate change, showing how those with the power to do something about global warming are willfully avoiding taking action and how those with vested interests can mislead the public. But in the film, instead of climate change taking the center stage as the impending source of doom, it’s a comet racing towards the planet.
In this grocery store scene, something astounding happens. Out of the blue, amidst the chaos and uncertainty (and very near the climax of the film), Leo stops. He pulls two packages off the shelf that he says is wild salmon and farmed salmon then launches into the following speech:
“Look at the wild salmon. Look at the difference between that and the farm raised stuff. See how this looks … I don’t know … fake, right?”
Then he puts the packages back on the shelf, makes a comment about fingerling potatoes, and races on with their shopping.
This five-second moment of dialogue, in one fell swoop, had more power and eyeballs than those of us in the blue foods community might actually have in our entire careers. It’s a moment where he implies to the audience – that even when the world is coming to an end – do not eat farmed fish.
This false narrative on aquaculture from an actor well-known for his support of environmental initiatives, and others like it in the media, are highly detrimental to our mission and push viewers to adopt a belief that will hurt our food system in the long term.
In some instances, it can put an entire industry in jeopardy. For example, a judge in Washington state – who was riding on the negative narratives surrounding aquaculture – decided to invalidate permits for an estimated 900 shellfish farms, claiming that the environmental impacts had not been adequately studied. However, the permits had been granted for decades without environmental-impact issues.
The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association and East Coast Shellfish Growers Association even issued a joint letter containing 15 pages of suggestions and nine pages of scientific references on the benefits of shellfish culture, such as improved water quality, sequestration of carbon and nutrients, and the creation of habitat through culturing equipment. All of this fell on deaf ears and continues to create an uphill battle in the courts for shellfish farmers thanks to a narrative played out in the media with no scientific basis.
The solution for those of us putting in the hard work to bring sustainable blue foods to plates for current and future generations can no longer take a “wait-it-out” approach. We have to work with intention to overcome the negative narrative that has hardly any factual basis, but ongoing catastrophic effects.
We have to tackle this in the three places where mass media functions: 1) news and information, 2) entertainment, and 3) education. The first and foremost function is the coverage that we are beginning to garner in mainstream news and information channels.
When it comes to news and information, we must address both online and traditional media outlets. We have to engage, reengage, and be relentless on story pitches and outreach. This also means that as we look at budgets, both marketing and PR cannot be viewed as the “L” in the “P&L.” We must plan and budget for hiring public relations teams to strategically pitch our stories into places where they need to be told the most.
Entertainment is a key area that our efforts have missed almost entirely. Whether it’s a critically acclaimed film or a TikTok influencer-created video, entertainment media gives us opportunities for our message and mission to be integrated into content that feels inviting, less threatening, and will reach new audiences that might otherwise tune out. We can host salons with content writers, producers, studios, and even food stylists that work on sets, to help change that negative into a positive. By supporting the writing of shows and movies that include sustainable blue foods – even if it’s as simple as having a beautifully raised salmon served at the main character’s table during a TV series, we give ourselves a shot. That Coca Cola can is not in the background by accident, and it is possible to get more blue foods into scenes. Just imagine – you’re watching Oceans 11, and instead of regular potato chips, Brad Pitt is munching on kelp chips!
And finally, we must be intentional with our education efforts. Educating the masses about the facts around aquaculture’s emerging seat at the table of the future of food is one that can be told in multiple ways. It can be shared through a place-based narrative that humanizes the farmer's journey. It can be done through educational platforms in college and universities, K-12 education, and food banks forums. Even donating our products to schools and including educational tool kits that teachers can use to teach about blue foods and aquaculture will make a lifelong impact for these kids.
In the present era of globalization, the majority of people in our society depend on mass media to remain connected with the world. If we can thoughtfully and successfully integrate the true story of blue foods into news and information, entertainment, and education, we can have our “cage-free egg” moment and finally break through to the public.
So let’s all look up – to the power and influence of mass media and explore how we can leverage it for the future of food.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bushman