While Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the 49th state fishing industry have been fretting the dreaded “Frankenfish” salmon, a modern twist on old Mendelian genetics, mad scientists have been working to end-run the whole farming business.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this month gave its stamp of approval to the plans of Berkley, Calif.-based Upside Foods to produce chicken “meat” from cultured chicken cells, and the company has plans for meat and seafood products as well.
The FDA appears all onboard with these ideas.
‘The FDA is ready to work with additional firms developing cultured animal cell food and production processes to ensure their food is safe and lawful under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” the agency said in a press release announcing plans to let Upside proceed.
“We are already engaged in discussions with multiple firms about various types of food made from cultured animal cells, including food made from seafood cells that will be overseen solely by the FDA. Our goal is to support innovation in food technologies while always maintaining as our priority the production of safe food.”
In a media release, the company claimed that new technologies employed at its “large-scale production facility… are expected to drastically reduce both operating and capital costs for large-scale production, and when combined with the company’s premium product and market focus, will enable a projected 75 percent gross margin.”
BlueNau is focused on producing bluefin tuna in the laboratory, but it is far from the only player in the business of growing protein products from cells instead of naturally on the farm or in the wild.
Laboratory produced salmon
The companies involved in the development of manufactured meat and seafood products like to proclaim their high ideals for feeding the world, but like AquaBounty – the parent company for the Frankenfish – the reality at the end of the day is that it’s all, or at least largely all, about money. This is the way capitalist economies work.
AquaBounty has not been shy about that. It has told potential investors that its “AquaAdvantageSalmon offers superior economics versus conventional (farmed) salmon by enabling 70 percent more harvest output while using 25 percent less feed.”
The feed savings are due to the fast-growing nature of a fish that starts life as an Atlantic salmon egg injected with a transgene created by combining the growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon with a gene promotor from and ocean pout.
This is a little more sophisticated than breeding a horse with a donkey to get a mule, but the idea is similar. And the Aqua Advantage Salmon, like the poor mule, is incapable of reproducing, which would prevent the AquaAdvantage salmon from breeding with wild fish were it somehow to escape the farm, which is unlikely given that AquaBounty has been legally restricted to farming its salmon on land to ensure the Frankenfish don’t run wild.
Murkowski’s stated concern with the fish is that “genetically engineered salmon are evaluated under the FDA’s New Animal Drug Application – a program intended to oversee antibiotics and medicines use on animals and livestock. The fact that the FDA does not have a proper approval process in place for these new GE animals for human consumption is frightening and appalling. Alaska’s fisheries are world-renowned for their high-quality, productivity, and sustainability, and these genetically modified salmon could potentially devastate our wild populations of salmon and desolate (sic) our fisheries. I will continue to work to protect Alaskans, our fish populations, and larger ecosystems from potentially disastrous outcomes.”
How the AquaBounty salmon would get from the the AquaBounty farms in Indiana, Ohio and Canadia’s Maritime Provinces to Alaska to devaste anything is unclear, but then Murkowski’s efforts to undermine the AquaBounty product isn’t about the environment anymore than was Alaska’s ban on fish traps or salmon farms.
The economy, stupid
The ban on fish traps was a populist revolt against what was perceived as Outside control of the fishing industry, an economic mainstay of the Alaska territory, and the ban on salmon farms was a fishing industry led effort to curtail market competition from farmed salmon.
Both failed. The Alaska fishing industry is still controlled largely by Outside interests, and the market has been taken over by farmed salmon from Norway, Chile and elsewhere. And now traditional seafood, both wild and farmed, appears about to face competition from seafood cultured in the industrial version of a test tube.
Crazy as this sounds, never bet against tech.
Twenty-five years ago, the internet was AOL.com. The laptop computer was heavy and clunky machine with less power than today’s smartphone. And Facebook was not yet a dream of Mark Zuckerberg , a 13-year-old middle school student.
Thirty years ago, the laptop computer – there was only one – was the Radio Shack TRS-80, which newspaper reporters of the day commonly referred to simply as the “Trash 80.” It had a gray, LCD screen that offered eight lines of type.
Within four years, it was history, beaten into submission by better, faster computers with bigger screens and the capability to hold a whole lot more data. But the Trash 80 paved the way for what was to come.
A dozen years after the birth and early death of the “scrawny, little computer,” wrote a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, “laptop computers are one of the computer industrys hottest sellers. Manufacturers shipped almost 10 million laptop units in 1995.”
The laptop paved the way for the smartphone and the tablet, and the best way to collectively describe these computerized devices today is to simply say they are everywhere. Technology constantly evolves.
Given this history, there’s no reason to believe cultured meat and seafood are going to go away. The products are just going to get better.
“Dear chickens of the world, you may be dismissed from the dinner table.
“Why? Well, we have some juicy news for you. UPSIDE Foods has received a ‘No Questions Letter’ from the FDA. That’s good news for everybody – for the entire world, really. But for you? For chickens? It might be the best news ever. Let me explain.
“UPSIDE Foods makes cultivated meat. It’s not vegan or vegetarian, it’s delicious meat grown directly from animal cells. That’s right – animal cells. It might sound crazy, but it’s based on a simple principle: animal cells are the building blocks of the meat that we humans love so much.
“So how does it work? In a nutshell, we take a sample of animal cells, place them in a vessel we call a cultivator (you can see why we call it “cultivated meat”, and feed them the right blend of nutrients for them to multiply and grow. After about three weeks, the meat is harvested and ready to enjoy.”
It’s unlikely that cultured chicken will replace real chicken any time soon, but it will likely add competition in the market place in the not too distant future. “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10,” as Microsoft founder Bill Gates observed more than 25 years ago.
And what’s coming for the chicken-farming industry is coming for the commercial fishing industry, which is a problem for Alaska wherein operate some of the world’s least efficient salmon fisheries in a world where “carbon footprints” are becoming an increasing issue.
Researchers who examined the carbon footprint of salmon harvests in Bristol Bay, home to the state’s most valuable salmon fishery, concluded it takes significanlty less energy to catch, process and transport those salmon than is required for the preparation of meat products, but they noted there is room for major improvement.
“Perception by stakeholders was that there are few options and incentives for increasing energy efficiency in the capture phase of the fishery,” the wrote in a study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in July. “While nearly all the vessel owners understood that the government regulations that specify size of boats and type of gear used in Bristol Bay actually result in inefficient boat designs that use much more energy (because of the length restriction, to maximize quantity of fish in the vessel hold, boats are designed with wider beams and deeper depths, creating much more drag than a sleeker design would exhibit), there is no indication that government will change regulations and further, if they were changed, most vessel owners said that scrapping their current vessel in favor of a more efficient one was out of the question.”
Meanwhile, the researchers wrote, there were even bigger problems once the fish were brought ashore.
“Processors were almost unanimous in saying that they have installed energy efficient lighting and machinery whenever possible, but that the biggest problem is that there is not an electrical grid. All electricity is generated using relatively small-scale diesel generators, which are typically very inefficient,” they reported.
“Considering that Alaska has a fairly large potential for hydroelectric generation, considerable energy savings (as much as 50 percent of the energy associated with processing), could accrue with investments in regional
electric grids. However, it must be understood that building a hydroelectric grid is not the responsibility of the industry.”
Norwegian salmon farmers are blessed with living in a country that generates more than 95 percent of its electricity with hydropower, which offers them some assistance in trying to meet government requirements to reduce the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percnet by 2050.
Alaska fishermen face on such mandates, but fisheries efficiencies are expected to become an increasing issue in the market. And cultured seafood is expected to have the smallest carbon footprint of all.
“It’s a new seafood option that provides the same nutritional benefits as the most pristine wild-caught fish, without the mercury, microplastics, antibiotics and other contaminants common in wild and farmed fish,” according to Wildtype.
The wild salmon of Alaska will always have a market, given that the cost of producing the fish are nil. Nature takes care of that. But the value of the fish to the people who catch it depends on what markets do, and market competition invariably drives down price.
A Trash 80 with 24K of storage cost $1,000 in 1983, the equivalent of $2,992 in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Inflation calculator. Kohls now has a Amazon Fire 7 16GB for $39.99.
It has a screen so much better than the Trash 80 that the two can’t even be compared. It has somewhere around 666,666-times the storage. And it can do things no one could imagine in the old days of the Trash 80, like forge a wireless connection to the internet.
The way you moved data with a Trash 80 was to put rubber couplings over the mouthpiece and ear piece of a telephone and hope the transmission to a mainstream computer somewhere on the other end of the phone line worked. Often it didn’t.