Interview with Mhairi Forbes

Growing up with parents who were a farmer and cookery demonstrator it was inevitable that Mhairi would work in the food industry. After studying food science at Robert Gordon University, she joined the technical graduate training scheme with Grampian Country Food Group. She then spent 16 years working predominantly in the white and red meat industry as a technical manager responsible for driving the food safety, quality, legality and integrity agenda on sites. In 2016, she joined Marks and Spencer where she currently works as the technical manager for the protein category.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

I have worked as a food technologist within the protein industry for over 20 years and in these roles understanding your raw material from farm to fork is vital in delivering quality products.  Until 2016, I had only worked in red meat and poultry so when I took on my first role within fish production at a salmon processor, I realised very quickly that this protein was no different in how farming methods impacted quality and that was the start of my passion for aquaculture.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

My first role in aquaculture was working as Head of Technical for Marine Harvest Rosyth (now Mowi) when I learned how important good aquaculture methods were to deliver quality products, whether a fillet, or smoked salmon.   I found it fascinating how quickly a slight change in the environment and the number of variables that could impact the raw material and therefore finished product quality.

At M&S, I am responsible for the food safety, quality and integrity of our fish and shellfish suppliers.  This includes working hand in hand with the aquaculture team to ensure our brand standards are maintained and we deliver world leading quality products to our customers.  In this role, the importance of sustainability in farmed fish and shellfish to deliver our business objectives quickly became clear to me and I wanted to learn more so have recently completed a post graduate diploma in Sustainable Aquaculture.  

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?

In my role at M&S I have been lucky to work closely with Patrick Blow. As the aquaculture specialist in our business, his knowledge has been key in delivering market leading farmed fish and shellfish.  His collaborative approach in working with suppliers showed me how important it is to build long term trusted relationships which enable a continual improvement of standards whilst creating an environment to innovate.  The passion in delivering the best raw material from our suppliers, such as Scottish Sea Farms, is infectious and their willingness to share their knowledge has only deepened my love for aquaculture.

How important has networking been to your career?

Many people can find networking daunting; at an early stage in my career I certainly did, however I now know how important it is to take the opportunities when they arise. Networking does not have to be a big event or conference but can be simply reaching out to someone through LinkedIn. 

Visiting suppliers and understanding their processes have been key networking opportunities in my career. You can watch videos and listen to presentations, but nothing beats meeting the farmers face to face and really getting into the detail of the how and why.  

During your career, have you noticed inequalities in the sector, be it in policies or culture? If yes, what actions do you think would best address those issues?

The majority of my career has been in non-aquaculture roles but protein production has historically been a very male dominated industry. I am very sure some of the “banter” I was subjected to even early ‘00’s would not happen now.  There is a definite shift in equality and there are many inspirational women leaders across the aquaculture, red and white meat industries who are helping to move that dial.  Women in Scottish Aquaculture (WISA) is a great network to support females in the industry as well as attract new talent. Women working together to encourage, support and most importantly empower each other is a simple yet key action to address inequality.

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

Completing my postgraduate diploma in Sustainable Aquaculture at St. Andrews university whilst still working full time in the middle of a pandemic.

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?

Ask lots of questions, there is no such thing as a stupid question! All the people I have encountered in the industry want to share their knowledge so don’t be afraid to ask.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to that person you think can help you, there is a strong chance they will get something back from you in return.

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?

The reality is that the sector is coming under sustained pressure from NGOs and activists with regards to perceptions of the impact aquaculture has on not only animal welfare but the environment. Whilst we can argue that much of the criticism is unfounded, we need to acknowledge that there is a risk of losing consumer trust and along with climate change, there is increasing risk of significant welfare and environmental events.

Collaboration across the industry will be key in addressing these challenges.  Competition between players, understandably, has often meant that true cross sector collaboration to address specific threats has had limited success, however with common interests in key threats comes the opportunity to work together for the benefit of all parties.

Attracting and retaining new talent who will bring new ideas and innovation to the sector, as well as developing those already involved in Scottish aquaculture will be key for a truly sustainable future. As a relatively new industry which is developing at pace, and in the current labour market, there is a real opportunity to create an exciting and rewarding career path for current and new entrants.

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