Gone global?

frankenfish film

Frankenfish, they’re not just a movie/Columbia-Tristar

The assault on genetically modified salmon coming from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and others appear to be making life difficult for the company trying to bring the fast-growing fish to market.

Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing only time will tell given that AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf has now told SeafoodSource the company is looking to farm its salmon overseas.

“China is of significant interest to us, and we’re having a couple conversations with partners over there to build the next farm,” Wulf told SeafoodSource reporter Chris Chase. “We have approval for field trials in China, and the Chinese government has been very receptive in trying to navigate the regulatory approval process.”

She said the company is also exploring the possibility of building a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) farms in Brazil and Israel, a country at the forefront of agriculture technology. 

North American efforts to eliminate or limit the sale of the fish – at the Canadian Seafood Show in Montreal in September the Aquaculture Stewardship Council said it will not certify genetically modified (GM) salmon – is no guarantee the spread of the fast-growing fish will be slowed given its apparent market advantages.

AquaBounty claims its salmon are 25 percent more efficient than non-GM salmon in converting feed to body mass and reach marketable size 8- to 10-months faster than non-GM salmon.

If the past is any precedent, such an economic driver would suggest government efforts to bottle up genetic technology might be doomed. The U.S. aggressively tried to restrict human genetic research and development in the 1970s, and the main result was that the first “test tube” baby was born in the United Kingdom (UK).

Human embryonic research was banned in the U.S. in 1974, and though the ban was eventually lifted federal funding for such studies remained cut off for a long time.

Research efforts moved across the Atlantic Ocean. Technology is hard to contain. Innovations legally blocked in one country have a long history of popping up elsewhere. The Luddites have been losing since the movement began in 18th Century England with some desperate weavers breaking into factories to smash new-fangled mechanized looms and knitting frames.

Amoeboid movement

Largely because of those U.S. restrictions, investigations into in-vitro fertilization (IVF) shifted to the UK where Louise Joy Brown was born in 1978. 

IVF quickly spread from the UK to Australia where 11 IVF babies were born in 1979.

“Melbourne then became the international center for IVF, not only converting the process to clinical treatment with a near 10 percent success rate by using stimulated cycles, but also pioneering world-firsts such as embryo freezing, egg donation, in-vitro maturation, blastocyst transfer and microinjection techniques — although the first human birth using microinjection was in Singapore,” the Medical Journal of Australia reported in 2014.

Today once-controversial IVF births, though expensive, are commonplace around the world.

Since the 1981 birth of the first U.S. baby conceived with in vitro fertilization (IVF), NBC in 2017 reported “at least” 1 million births in this country. Globally, the BBC in 2012 reported the  birth of the “the five millionth test-tube baby.”

Successful technologies – no matter how controversial they might be when they are introduced – tend to take root and grow as successfully as invasive species.

Despite global pushbacks against genetically modified (GM) grains, GM seeds long ago took over the corn and soybean fields of the U.S. By 2012 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was reporting  88 percent of the corn and 94 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States were genetically modified.

China has long been a major buyer of those soybeans. Chinese attitudes toward genetically modified foods appear to differ somewhat from those in the U.S. where questions have been raised about the safety of such products. 

A study in the Newspaper Research Journal reported most U.S. journalists were found to be “skeptical about sources and experts on GM food,” whereas a Chinese study published in Science of Food concluded “most (Chinese) journalists hold positive attitudes toward GM products, with nearly 80 percent of the journalists accepting GM-labeled foods without preference toward how the products are labeled.

“We hypothesize that the mainstream media interest group surveyed had performed significant background research on GM technologies in order to ensure the objectivity and impartiality of their prior GMO reporting. Their foundational knowledge regarding GM technologies and products likely went beyond the basic bioscience knowledge assessed in this research survey and may explain the media’s more objective and positive opinion of GM technologies. This finding is consistent with our observation that fewer negative reports about GM technology by the Chinese mainstream media have occurred in recent years.”

Media attitudes play a significant but hard to quantify role in shaping public opinion, as the U.S. study noted:

“As much as they may distrust news media, non-scientist audiences for science news depend on journalists to obtain information from reliable sources, to interpret it and to make it accessible. This is especially true with respect to emerging issues in science and technology. While science may generally enjoy an upper hand over journalism, science’s interpretive control is significantly loosened in cases of controversial topics.”


On the North American continent, GM salmon have been fighting upstream against a roaring current ever since being tagged with the catchy label of “Frankenfish.”

“This is separate from the larger GMO (genetically modified organism) debate,” Murkowski declared on the floor of the Senate in 2016. “Genetically engineered animals are not crops…this is something entirely new. This is a new species.

“It’s that Frankenfish that we call it. It is so unnatural….It is something as Alaskans we need to stand up and defend against.”

She pointedly called out as distasteful the idea of taking a gene from the ocean pout and inserting it into a salmon to speed the latter’s growth and argued the AquaBounty fish shouldn’t “even be called a salmon.”

“This is an ocean pout,” she said during a PowerPoint presentation. “It is a type of an eel. As you can see, it doesn’t look anything like a salmon….this is a bottom-dwelling ocean pout eel. They take DNA, splice a DNA from this, a splice of DNA from a magnificent Chinook salmon, and splice it into an Atlantic salmon egg and that egg is meant to produce a fish that will grow to full size twice as fast as a normal Atlantic salmon. So this is the push here, to push Mother Nature.”

There is no arguing with Murkowksi’s observation that AquaBounty is tampering with nature, but humans have been doing that since not long after they first domesticated wild plants and animals.

“I don’t think the anti-GMO people have done consumers good,” AquaBounty’s Wulf told Chase. “The reason I say that is there’s no science to indicate there’s any problem with GMOs. I think they’ve done consumers a bit of a misservice. They’ve stirred up a lot of controversy with no real fact.

“I think the most important thing is, after 20 years of regulatory testing, we are completely confident that our AquAdvantage salmon is as safe and nutritious as a non-bioengineered salmon. We’re the most studied food in history, and I’m proud of what they’ve (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)) done because I don’t think there’s anything they didn’t look at.”

The FDA in 2017 judged the AquaBounty salmon safe for human consumption.

Wulf labeled Murkowski’s opposition as “misguided protectionism,” and there is a bit of protectionism involved. Murkowski has repeatedly expressed her opinion the fish could threaten the livelihood of Alaska fishermen already battling a tsunami of farmed fish.

Alaska owned the market for salmon in the 1980s and banned salmon farming in Alaska in 1990 in the belief the state could control the market. It didn’t work. More than seven out of 10 salmon eaten in the world today are farmed.

Farming production continues to grow and the farmed salmon acronym of the day is RAS, which has allowed farms to move on land and quash environmental complaints.

RAS fish can’t escape into the ocean to intermingle with wild fish. RAS waste can be filtered out of the water of the farms and used for fertilizer. Filtered water means the fish aren’t subject to the pollution now plaguing the world’s oceans and don’t need to be treated with drugs to help them deal with ocean-born diseases.

Wulf believes AquaBounty, which has been raising salmon in RAS operations for years, is perfectly poised to take advantage of the next wave in salmon farming. She contends the company is now in a position where it can economically raise its farmed salmon anywhere it has access to a good water supply.

“We’ve been eating genetically modified food for 50 years, and no one can point to what the problem is, because there isn’t one,” she told Seafood Source. “(This) really does solve the challenges that we’re facing. It’s a nutritious protein that can reduce the carbon footprint of our current methods in a biosecure environment. I’m a huge advocate for sustainable practices, which is why I find this to be so interesting, because it really does answer all those questions.”

And AquaBounty salmon appears to have a big market advantage because it can be produced for less cost because the fish grow faster.

“As opposed to other companies that are aiming for a premium market space, the faster growth rate of AquaBounty’s salmon means the company can get higher throughput, avoiding the need for a higher price-point,” Chase wrote.

None of this is good news for Alaska commercial fishermen, but the global market for food cannot be ignored. The Green Revolution might have saved the planet from one forecast food crisis, but threats still loom on the horizon.

“The current global population is 7.6 billion. It is expected to be 9.2 billion in 2050,” writes Michigan State University educator George Silva. “By 2050, the population in the developing countries will be roughly 8 billion….Asia will contribute a staggering 41 percent and Africa 47 percent towards this growth in 2050.

“The general consensus is that global agriculture production has to be increased by about 60 to 70 percent from the current levels to meet the increased food demand in 2050.”

Animal protein is especially an issue because of the inefficiency of animals in converting plants to meat.

“Increased economic growth and income levels in the developing countries are leading drivers for people to eat more animal proteins and dairy products,” Silva noted. “This implies producing more food to feed animals under intensive-feeding systems – animals are not efficient feed converters. For example, beef cattle generally need eight to 10 kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat.”

Farmed salmon needs less than two kilos to produce a kilo. And if AquaBounty’s claims are to be believed, its GM salmon are 25 percent than this.

“Compared to beef, pork or poultry, salmon is by far the most efficient food system,” claims Norway-based Qrill Aqua. “Providing the highest edible yield and an unbeatable feed conversion of 1.1, salmon also offers the most edible meat per 100g at 61kg. Compared to its land-based rivals, that is six times the figure for beef production, four times that of pork and three times more than poultry.”

A salmon-farm food supplier, Quill Aqua is one of the new partners of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race which appears to have recognized where the global economy is headed.














11 replies »

  1. Lisa Pelosi says GMO is bad regarding animals, and the practice should be banned. She should tell that to her fellow Democrat lawmakers whos’ kids love their labradoodles. She’s clueless and just saying what gets her votes. Let there be Frankenfish. Let the Chinese raise them and eat them.

  2. What is it with your incessant hardon about AK fisheries? You never miss on some story that you think will impact our fishers – negatively. You’re a reliable one-trick pony on that score. There really isn’t anything that would make you happy other than all the norms got trashed.

    • And now Defender of the Norms. Wow Should be job security for sure.

      Journalism, like Democracy has its downsides alright. 49% are typically going to feel left out at the Ballot Box … and if nobody cares to read the story on the morning rag, then what is the Press?

      Fish stories were a standby, before the press, before the pen. Hello. Religion, politics, sex, and fish stories. That about right?

      For beatification of norms, try the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Alaska is more like a Waring Blender. Unless you’re an ostrich.

    • What is it with your incessant hard-on about Craig occasionally writing about AK fisheries? Out of the 10 stories on the home page there is a grand totally 1 about AK fisheries, there are twice as many articles about the climate and 2.5 as many about animals, given the place that AK fisheries have in our state a case could easily be made that there should be more articles, not less. Aside from the heavily biased Laine Welch, where else can a noncommercial fisherman expect to find any news on AK fisheries?

      If you prefer to stick your head in the sand and pretend that there isn’t an outside world and that the outside world does not impact AK fisheries, that is on you. Being informed about what is happening in the world in regards to an industry that is central to so many Alaskans way of life isn’t a bad thing.

      • Nice try Sparky. Just go to the search engine provided and type: Alaska salmon. Come back when you see how many are, well, you already know. And please tell me in the last six months how many cut-n-paste essays there have been about the death of Alaska salmon over the environment. You do the work since you challenged.

      • Monk,

        Are you talking about all the global warming stories that lied about the demise of Alaskan salmon?

    • Who in the state besides Craig writes in-depth articles about commercial fisheries in Alaska? Regurgitated press releases from the seafood processor / commercial fish radio don’t count.

      Sometimes the Alaska Journal of Commerce has a reporter who can do articles with depth, but those are few and far between, and then those reporters have to butt heads with the AJC editors who are commercial fish apologists.

      Keep up the good work Craig.

  3. AquaBounty’s use of GMO in its salmon is most likely part Intellectual Property ‘marking/tagging’, and part ordinary breathless PR. Hype.

    GMO is a single-trait, single gene, point-insertion technology which can do one, isolated, specific thing very magically. Boom, you got it. As long as what you want is the result of a singe gene, and you know what it is.

    Certain things are single-gene traits. I don’t see Growth Rate on that list.

    25% better growth is not that impressive. Today’s cattle are several hundred percent over both beef & dairy of a 100-150 years ago, and they did it all the old-fashioned way.

    FrankenChicken is 100% GMO free. It’s a trick multi-way hybridization technique. Originally a cross of (English) Cornish Game and (American) (White) Barred Rocked. Now maintained as several inbred lines that are kept isolated from each other, then multi-crossed to get the explosive-growth chicks (which don’t reproduce, and if they do the results aren’t the FrankenParents, and yeah-huh, that’s part of the Plan).

    Fish are a dream for this approach, since the male milk is easily obtained and mass-fertilization is a nothing. You maintain a male line, and a female line, both inbred, and when you cross them, Boom. If you aren’t doubling both growth & efficiency (100%) in the early stages of the process, you need to go back to school.

    My wet finger in the breeze guess is China was the objective, all along. And what China is most interested in, probably isn’t salmon.

    • Lisa’s wrong on this one. Whether you make the genetic changes in the test tube or in the womb, the result is the same – modified offspring. Keeping AquaBounty out of North America is yet another protectionist measure doomed to fail. Amazing the protectionist side keeps trying the same thing in the same way hoping for a different outcome. Cheers –

      • Yeah, having GMO-vapors is a bit 20th century. Supermarket shelves are groaning with GMO-derived products. A few operators trying non-GMO marketing angles, are struggling.

        People like to bellyache (about anything or nothing), but they’re chowing down on GMO (plant) food, and have been for decades.

        GMO in animals has not moved out onto the store shelves yet, not in any big way. Activists & politicians like to ‘play’ that, as saying the public isn’t ready for GMO meats … but the truth is much more likely simply that GMO can’t compete as effectively with (revved-up versions of old-fashioned) breeding-techniques, in the case of animals.

        “Behavior” is at the root of important animal trait-packages, like Dairy, Beef, Eggs … and Growth Rate. These are each known as a Complex, a very complicated array of traits (and many different genes interacting in bewildering, variable ways), which can be managed with clever breeding … but not so much with (overly-simplistic) GMO tricks.

        GMO’s big market success was RoundUp Ready. Something that’s really one-molecule simple, yes. Something that’s really a ‘cloud’ of molecules & genes that work more like the Weather … GMO is totally out of it’s league.

    • For the chicken-aficionados, I fumbled the Cornish-Rock Cross (practically all chicken meat in the store, aka FrankenChicken). It was Cornish Game on the English side alright, but the American side was (White) Plymouth Rock. The famous and long-dominant Barred Rock is a sister breed to White Plymouth Rock (both Plymouth Rocks) … all of which arose from a confused & muddled later-19th C backstory.

      … But if you want to create the next super-chicken, you’ll have to do the homework!

      (My guess is, the chicken industry will improve further and the price will drop, as farmed fish try to lower their price & broaden their market. High-tech chicken may also ‘split’, offering a slightly higher-priced, but Healthier & Cooler version, aimed directly at salmon trying to encroach. (Just in case you were feverishly fishing out yer wallet to invest…))

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