Are markets ready for GM Salmon?

Samuels & Sons has announced that it is to buy and sell AquAdvantage salmon in the US, but will consumers share their enthusiasm for the product?

Genetic modification in the food chain continues to divide opinion. So the news that genetically modified (GM) salmon could soon be on our plates once again raised more than a few eyebrows, particularly at a time when Covid-19 has heightened issues around safety and security within the food chain.

In the US, Samuels & Sons, one of its largest seafood wholesalers, has announced that it will take delivery of genetically engineered salmon from AquaBounty as the firm ramps up efforts to bring its product to market.

But what’s at play here and will the move be a success? As Simon Sinek wrote in in his 2009 book of the same title, perhaps it’s best to ‘Start with why’.

Aquaculture and the environment

As global demand for fish continues to grow and wild stocks continue to dwindle, those within aquaculture are attempting to balance supply with demand. This comes against the backdrop of an industry where rapid growth and environmental costs weigh heavily on the agenda for investors and conservationists alike, as they seek to find common ground between a reduction in carbon footprint whilst maximising output. As such, aquaculture’s importance in the future of the global food chain cannot be underestimated.

Unfortunately, the use of open net pens has traditionally pitted campaigners against salmon farms, with environmentalists concerned about the effects that introgression from escaping fish, chemical treatments and toxic waste have upon the coastal waters and sea lochs housing existing aquaculture operations.

While offshore farming and marine closed containment systems (CCS) have been mooted as potential problem solvers, the option of moving production from sea cages to land-based facilities has become another attractive option for investors.

RAS and the changing face of aquaculture

Indeed, there has been a marked shift in aquaculture strategies since the advent of recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), an emerging technology which Rabobank suggests could well change the face of aquaculture during the next decade for a number of reasons.

These closed containment tanks mean that salmon can be farmed on land almost anywhere and allow for high-density optimal fish production in facilities that require far less water than their conventional counterparts. In addition, RAS facilities allow for greater stocking density of salmon in a completely controlled environment where farms can use temperature control as a way to maximise feed conversion and achieve optimal growth conditions. Factor in GM salmon and you have America’s second most popular seafood available all year round and in record times.

Although the Samuels & Sons story has been making headlines, it’s actually just over five years since the US Food & Drug Administration originally approved AquAdvantage for human consumption. However, Congress then put the brakes on things in 2016, seeking further clarity in terms of labeling for consumers before also passing a law that ensured that the US Department of Agriculture would have to set mandatory standards for the disclosure of genetically modified foods.

AquAdvantage and food safety guidelines

When these labeling guidelines were met, former FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, announced they would be deactivating the import alert back in March 2019, thereby allowing eggs to be transported for growth and the AquAdvantage project to continue.

"As was determined during the FDA’s 2015 review, this fish is safe to eat, explained Gottlieb. “The genetic construct added to the fish’s genome is safe for the animal, and the manufacturer’s claim that it reaches a growth marker important to the aquaculture industry more rapidly than its non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon counterpart is confirmed.”

Market-ready fish in half the time

So where does this fit in with the recent announcement and what does it mean for consumers? Samuels & Sons has said that it will be one of the first companies to buy and sell genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon which grows to market size in half the time of its non-GMO counterparts.

For investors this is a key point, as significantly reduced lead times mean market-ready fish from an all female breeding line within 18 to 20 months.

In addition, by arriving 8-10 months earlier than the traditional fish and weighing in between 8-11lbs, the finished salmon enables producers to lower the feed coefficient by around 25% in comparison to traditional cage culture, as David Melbourne, Chief Commercial Officer of Aquabounty, confirmed to Undercurrent News.

Extrapolating where this all goes is fascinating because GM salmon in conjunction with RAS absolutely changes not only the dynamics and geography of salmon farming, but also has the ability to alter supply chains and trade flows too.

Global aquaculture trends post-pandemic

Current import and export trends could be substantially altered in the face of such land-based salmon farming techniques further extending their positions into countries such as China which historically have lacked local salmon production.

In the meantime, demand certainly continues to grow. Back in 2016 the aquaculture industry was already valued at $232bn, accounting for 53% of the total reported global seafood supply, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Moreover, latest statistics on global aquaculture production from the FAO show a total farmgate sales value of $263.6bn, with ‘another all-time record high’ 114.5m tonnes in live weight recorded during 2018.

Breaking this down, recently released data from the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) reveals that salmon was the second-most consumed species by US consumers during 2018. Perhaps most interestingly for investors, it also shows the largest increase in terms of seafood consumption, with a 5.8% rise to 2.55lbs per capita. Further figures from NOAA Fisheries confirm there are now more than 32mn lbs of farm-raised Atlantic salmon produced annually in the United States.

GM Salmon: ESG challenges and concerns

These numbers are clearly enticing investment in aquaculture with producers attempting to scale to meet current and future demand, particularly in a post-pandemic environment that has seen major disruptions in both supply and food chain security. However, that last part has left consumers nervous and clearly there are a number of environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges which must still be met if GM salmon and AquAdvantage are to succeed in winning them over.

At the same time, science and technology are offering us new-found possibilities when it comes to relieving pressure on natural fish stocks whilst offering us more efficient ways to produce proteins without the carbon footprints associated with transportation and shipping costs. After all, land-based farming systems offer numerous possibilities, not least zero impact on oceans and a sales pitch of being micro-plastic or pollutant free (Atlantic Sapphire already advertises its non-GM salmon as the latter).

With food safety and labeling guidelines having already been met in the US, consumers and foodservice companies must now decide whether they trust in the science behind the process or choose to boycott products such as AquAdvantage, based on existing principles and beliefs. Choice and education are important, as Canadians will tell you. Unlike the European Union and the United States, Canada does not require GM foods to be labelled and this has raised several issues around transparency where some consumers fear they are already being denied their right to choose.

Perhaps in order to safeguard our future and that of the oceans, consumer opinion on GM salmon and future land-based RAS systems will change in line with more data becoming readily available and governments beginning to drive investment away from ocean production and onto land.

Those within the aquaculture community will certainly be hoping so, as firms continue to weigh up the risk of massive upfront investment in land-based systems against projected consumer demand. They are betting on a time when land-based fisheries are the norm and main source of available protein, with open net pen salmon farms but a distant memory.