Nov 30 2015

Anti-Environmental Opposition to GMO Salmon

The FDA just approved the first GMO animal for human consumption – AquAdvantage Salmon. Those ideologically opposed to GMOs have predictably opposed this approval, and now are calling for labeling. Meanwhile some food outlets, like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Safeway and Korger, have pledged not to sell the fish.

This is a great example of how ideological thinking leads to irrational and self-contradictory positions.  Other than the fact that they were produced using genetic modification technology, these salmon are a wet dream (pun intended) of sustainable and environmentally friendly food production. ]

AquAdvantage Salmon

Salmon evolved a growth pattern that fits their seasonal migrations and their overall life cycle. There are several species of salmon, some Atlantic, some Pacific, and some exclusively fresh water. Atlantic salmon are the most common in fish farms.

Farmed Atlantic salmon typically take 3 years to become full grown and ready for the market. Their growth hormone is only active about half the time, fitting their life cycle in the wild. AquAdvantage salmon incorporate two genes from other fish – an additional growth hormone gene from another species of salmon, and a regulator gene from ocean pout.

As a result of these two genetic changes, the GMO salmon grows constantly, reaching full weight in 18 months rather than 3 years, according to the company who produces it.


Fish farming, or aquaculture, includes several methods for farming fish rather than catching them from the ocean. The goal is to efficiently produce fish protein in order to reduce demands on ocean farming. The full story, however, is complex.

Currently farmed salmon are fed a diet mostly made from fish. About 3-4 pounds of wild fish are caught, turned into fish meal and fish oil, and then fed to farmed salmon and converted into one pound of salmon protein. AquaBounty, the company who produced the new GMO salmon, use the figure of 1.2 pounds of fish feed to produce 1 pound of traditional farmed salmon. They further claim that the GMO salmon requires only 1 pound of feed to produce 1 pound of salmon – a claim I have a problem with due to thermodynamics. Let’s say, however, that it is close to 1 to 1.

The difference in ratios given I think is due to the weight of the total captured fish vs the weight of the fish feed made from them.

From one perspective fish farming is a very efficient way to produce animal protein. It has a higher efficiency of feed to produced protein than chicken, pigs, or cows. Of course, where that feed comes from is important.

The issue to keep in mind is that as our population is growing, and even now we are trying to feed over 7 billion people, anything we do to produce enough food will have an impact on the environment. We need to use land to grow food, we need a source of nitrogen, or we need to be pulling food from the environment. Anything we do on that scale has an impact.

For farmed fish, using caught fish as feed is useful because the feed has all the nutrients the fish need, and includes the Omega 3 that makes fish healthful to eat. To minimize the impact of fishing to feed farmed fish, producers focus on species with a rapid life cycle that can quickly replenish their populations. However, the extent of fishing is putting pressure even on these species.

Research is under way to develop soy or other plant-based feed, which of course requires land to farm the additional feed. Seaweed is an attractive alternative, as is developing artificial phytoplankton, which is the ultimate source of Omega 3 and many fish nutrients.

Regardless of the inputs, a 20% increase in the overall efficiency of growing farmed fish would have a significant impact. Anything we can do to make more food with fewer inputs is a good thing, and will become increasingly vital as the human population grows.

Opposition to GMO Salmon

Opposition to GMO salmon for environmental reasons makes no sense. Fish farming is already a promising method for producing animal protein, and specifically fish protein, in a sustainable way. There is room for improvement, and this 20% increase in growth efficiency is one.

The primary concern raised so far is the risk to wild populations if the fish ever escaped into the wild. Certainly I agree that we should be very careful before releasing any new species into a wild ecosystem. We have already done this multiple times, however, with invasive species. We have even introduced salmon into lake ecosystems for fishing, such as salmon species in the Great Lakes.

This does not mean that we should not take care, I just want to put these concerns into perspective. The potential environmental impact should be considered against the impact of everything else we are currently doing to feed the world.

Further, there are extensive safety precautions. The company farms salmon on land, away from the ocean. I have visited a salmon fish farm in Oregon – they are completely isolated systems. There is no place for them to escape. They would have to be deliberately released into the wild, which is not inconceivable. People have deliberately released invasive species before, for their own quirky reasons.

However, as a further precaution most of the farmed salmon are sterile. The breeders are kept isolated, and I would imagine under reasonable security, if for no other reason than to prevent corporate piracy.

It is also interesting to consider what would happen if fertile GMO salmon did get into the wild. Of course we cannot predict exactly what would happen, and invasive species have had a negative impact on ecosystems, but it is not clear how a faster growing salmon would be disruptive. They may not even survive, as their growth cycle is now optimized for farming, not for the migration and spawning cycle of wild salmon. It might be no more dangerous than releasing cows into the wild.

I will never say that risk is zero, but we do not and cannot demand zero risk from anything. We have to deal with acceptable levels of risk. Considering everything, I think farming this faster-growing salmon on land, away from the ocean, with the few breeders kept isolated, is an acceptable level of risk.

The second source of opposition comes from fears of feeding “frankenfood” to humans. Of course, almost all the food we eat is “frankenfood” – it has been substantially modified by human intervention, sometimes beyond recognition.  When this is pointed out, those who oppose GMOs on principle will complain that transgenic technology is different, but they do not have a compelling point.

There is no reason to suspect that the technology itself is unsafe. There is no reason to suspect that the source of a gene (whether from a closely related or distant species) has any bearing on the safety of the resulting cultivar or species. It is also not true that distant genes are never introduced in nature – horizontal gene transfer is actually quite common.

The arguments against transgenic technology have no legitimate scientific basis, and reduce to, “it just ain’t natural,” which itself is a dubious position.

The FDA, of course, has studies the GMO salmon, and reviewed the application – for two decades – and concluded that the fish is nutritionally the same as wild Atlantic salmon. There is no detectable difference, and no reason to suspect that there would be any difference for human consumption.

Heather Day, executive director of Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, had this to say:

“Salmon is too important for our diets, economy and cultural heritage to accept anything made in a lab-we want the real deal and applaud Costco for ensuring its customers that’s what they’ll get when they shop there.”

In other words, “It ain’t natural.”

After failing to make an environmental or health argument, opponents resort to the, “just label it,” position. If the fish is so safe and wonderful, why not proudly label it? The answer is obvious – because anti-GMO activists have spent the last two decades spreading misinformation and demonizing GMOs, dramatically affecting public opinion. They now want to further capitalize on their efforts to demonize GMOs by labeling it.

There is no more reason to require a simple and misleading GMO label on food than to require that farmed fish be labeled with the source of their feed (that would actually provide useful information).

The GMO label does not provide useful information to the public – it is a method of stigmatizing a safe and useful technology using emotionally loaded language – language that anti-GMO activists loaded themselves.


The AqaAdvantage salmon is not going to save the world. It is one incremental step in increasing the efficiency of our entire food production system. Increasing that efficiency is vital if we want to create a sustainable way of feeding a population over 7 billion and growing.

We need to explore and use every technology and every tool at our disposal to continually increase food production efficiency – breeding, hybrids, and specific genetic modification.

Opposition to the latter for essentially emotional reasons results in taking positions that are actually harmful to the environment, all the while pretending to defend it.

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