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).
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.
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.”
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.”