The Scottish salmon industry is under fire. You would think, watching two international documentary series featuring segments on salmon farming, that it was at the point of having to dramatically change or die – and that probably, if you’re eating the farmed fish, you should stop doing so right now.

Watch, for instance, Netflix’s You Are What You Eat, and you’ll see salmon farms framed as part of a global health and environment problem alongside the likes of intensive hog rearing, chicken farming and feedlots.

Binge Paramount’s The Changemakers and you find amongst episodes on a London-based food hub activist, maternity rights for black and brown women in the US and water poverty and plastic pollution in Ghana, one that takes the viewer on a journey across Scotland in the company of a 75-year-old who has been battling local salmon farms in Bute.

By including the Scottish salmon industry The Changemakers seems to mark it out as worthy of international attention. Not only is it part of the global issue that is salmon farming, but it is also a local one, and some of the people who object most fervently to the sites are those that live right next to them – the so-called Nimbys.

The Changemakers follows Sean Binder, a human rights activist brought in to help Scottish campaigner and former local councillor Jean Moffat with her strategy – and he arrives with what appears to be an open mind on whether the industry itself is a bad thing.

Early on Binder observes that his initial assumption is that salmon farming is a "solution rather than a problem”; a key to feeding human populations without taking away “from the wild stocks”. He also acknowledges its economic importance in a Scotland looking “to wean off oil and gas”.

The Herald: Generic salmon farm in ScotlandGeneric salmon farm in Scotland

That salmon farming has been touted as the answer is also acknowledged in You Are What You Eat. “Fish farming offered a lot of promise," says one expert. "They said we’re going to farm fish and we’re going to solve overfishing. “

But salmon farming has not been that simple, perfect answer. Though it is deeply embedded in Scotland’s future both as part of its Vision for Sustainable Aquaculture and a government-stated plan to double salmon production by 2030, it has been beset, historically, by wave after wave of problems and controversies, from lice to escaped fish.

2022 saw record-breaking mortalities – which can be seen not only as waste but a welfare issue – and there’s a strong likelihood that when the 2023 count comes in it will have exceeded those records.

Despite all this bad press, however, the issue has barely begun to impact on consumption. In the UK sales increased by 3.2 percent on the past year, reaching £1.25 billion and accounting for nearly 30 percent of all fish bought in the UK. Supermarkets are filled with smoked salmon terrines and slices, almost as ubiquitous as mince pies in the run up for Christmas.

This is the case despite the impacts made by campaigners featured in these documentaries: people like Jean Moffat, Wendy Elves (a key voice the No East Moclett campaign to prevent a seventh Cooke Aquaculture salmon farm in the waters near Papa Westray) and  Don Staniford, described as the 'OG' of anti-salmon farm activism in The Changemakers, and the man behind 'zombie' salmon footage that went viral this year.

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Both of these documentaries revolve in some way around provoking feelings of horror over the fish and the way they are farmed.  

You Are What You Eat does so while investigating the health benefits of a plant-based diet and looking at the environmental impact of meat and industrial farming.

The Changemakers is more of a dive into local activism. It seemed to me an accurate portrait of the tensions between campaigners, their communities and the industry.

One of the problems with the arguments around salmon farming is that there are many issues - the lice, the welfare, the pollution, the waste, the sustainability in the face of climate change.  Possibly the most contentious and difficult to get to the bottom of, is the question raised in You Are What You Eat as to whether salmon is the healthy food it has long been touted to be.

The Herald: Twins from You Are What You EatTwins from You Are What You Eat (Image: Netflix)

The series questions salmon’s image as a healthy food, as it follows the progress of of  Stanford study which takes 22 sets of identical twins over eight weeks in which one member of each twin is put on an omnivorous diet and the other on a plant-based one. Its argument is undoubtedly anti-meat, particularly intensively farmed meat, but it also comes out against both over-fishing and farmed fish - and the series is not without its critics.

But nevertheless, the Stanford study's positive results for those following the vegan diet remain startling – with cholesterol levels falling significantly for the plant-eaters, as well as reductions in visceral fat and insulin levels. 

You Are What You Eat in other words shifts the conversation. It's no longer about whether salmon is better than beef, or what meat is the most sustainable  - an argument in which salmon tends to come out very well. It's about whether plant is better than fish for both planet and human health - and that is part of a much bigger debate. 

Meanwhile,  The Changemakers is quite another story, about how people can create change – and it leads ultimately to answers that involve activists creating their own smaller versions of You Are What You Eat  or the kind of 'shock' tactics already engaged in by Don Staniford. 

Both documentaries are chiefly about targeting the consumer – those who eat salmon – rather than government policy itself.  But The Changemakers does something more complex, and leaves the possibility out there of a role for salmon farming and consumption, though not in its current open cage form.

The politics around salmon farming counts as much as our appetite for the fish, and in Scotland that means getting behind calls like that by the Scottish Greens this week, for Scottish salmon farm operations "to be reviewed as a matter of urgency".  We are what we eat - but also what we vote for.