Aquaculture & GMOs: Sorting Out the Issues

Of all the topics being discussed and debated on the Aquaculture Means Business LinkedIn group, few, if any, have been more contentious than those surrounding the role of genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) organisms in agriculture generally and aquaculture in particular. As I sift through the arguments in the LinkedIn group and the materials referenced by their proponents, I’ve tried to sort out the most relevant questions with regard to aquaculture as business. The questions, as I see them, are:

  • Are GM/GE organisms inherently dangerous?
  • Where do the dangers reside?
  • Can those dangers be eliminated or sufficiently mitigated?
  • Are the benefits offered by GM/GE organisms worth the costs of risk mitigation, or are the problems they seek to address better resolved by less-controversial means?

1. Are GM/GE organisms inherently dangerous? Most meaningful technological advances involve some risk of unintended consequences. Even something as clearly beneficial as a blight-resistant tomato entails the risk of crowding out unenhanced native species, reducing bio-diversity, etc. One doesn’t have to invoke GMOs to think about such risks — one only needs to look as far as the corn economy, at how commercial emphasis on producing a handful of preferred strains on an industrial scale has resulted in massive amount of global economic resources being to sustaining a corn monoculture. The introduction of genetic modification can and has exacerbated this trend, but it is not the root cause. The root cause resides in the economic and political structures and dynamics that govern agriculture policy and decision making. Much the same could be said for the beef economy, with its highly inefficient feed-conversion ratios (feed based on corn, which cattle did not evolve to digest — again, one doesn’t have to invoke GMOs to recognize the highly “unnatural nature” of the existing food-production industry).

2. Where do the dangers reside? With regard to aquaculture, the most-frequently invoked danger is that of escapes of GMO fish into the wild, where they might outcompete and devastate wild varieties. Again, this is not a risk that is restricted to genetically engineered varieties — the economic and environmental damage caused by invasive species globally is well documented. One needs to look only as far as the impact of lionfish in Florida, Asia carp in the American Midwest, and zebra mussels in the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. Some concern has been expressed about potential human health impacts of consuming GMO fish, but, as Dave Conley points out (quoting a representative of the Royal Society of London):

“We have looked at all of the available research, and found nothing to suggest that the process of genetic modification makes potential foodstuffs inherently unsafe. ”

Again, I juxtapose this with the very real and well-documented human health impacts of our corn economy in terms of the obesity epidemic caused, in large part, by the inclusion of high-fructose corn syrup in virtually every processed food product consumed in the developed world.

3. Can those dangers be eliminated or sufficiently mitigated?  In the case of aquaculture, the danger of escapes certainly can be mitigated by genetic and mechanical means. Creating sterile GMO fish and raising them far from oceans and rivers where they might affect wild species are two of the most obvious mechanisms and seem fairly fail-safe. The question that plagues people who are concerned about commercialization of GMO agricultural products (and, full disclosure: I count myself among them) is whether such fail-safe mechanisms will survive collision with economic and political incentives and constraints. In other words, if we become too comfortable too quickly with these techniques, how long will it be before safeguards are eroded in order to facilitate commercial interests? My concerns are not exclusively (or even primarily) about risks inherent in the techniques of genetic engineering — they have more to do with the economic and political incentives running in the background.

4. Are the benefits offered by GM/GE organisms worth the costs of risk mitigation, or are the problems they seek to address better resolved by less-controversial means? For me, this is the nub of the issue, especially where North American aquaculture is concerned, and I don’t have the answer. I agree fully with people like Dave Conley who argue that knee-jerk opposition to genetic engineering has a great deal in common with knee-jerk opposition to aquaculture. In both cases, the opposition often is not well thought out and is rooted more in simplistic media-generated narratives than in understanding of the science and technology.  What concerns me — along with a general wariness of the intersection between business and politics — is that hitching North American aquaculture’s wagon to the horse of genetic modification may just turn into another distraction from and obstacle to bringing the aquaculture industry on this continent to commercial viability.

When I look at aquaculture, I see a fairly uncontroversial set of opportunities to solve fairly obvious problems: the global human population is growing rapidly and requires access to healthy, efficiently sourced protein. Our current agricultural system, based on producing corn to feed to large mammals to feed to humans, is hugely inefficient in terms of land and water use and feed conversion. Aquaculture, as currently practiced in most of the world, involves a handful of solvable environmental concerns that can best be addressed in the developed world but, for economic and policy reasons, tends to be outsourced to less-developed, less-regulated areas.

I’m just not sure, at this moment in the industry’s history, it makes sense to focus overmuch on genetic engineering, whose main benefit — it seems to me — is to introduce incremental efficiency benefits to an industry that already offers huge efficiency advantages over existing food-production alternatives. Am I missing something here? If the primary benefit of genetic engineering is to grow fish bigger, faster, on less feed and thereby produce protein at a lower cost (lower cost being the bottom line, the linchpin to commercial viability) — mightn’t there be ways to achieve that end without introducing another component for environmental NGOs and regulators to object (rightly or wrongly) to?

Gary Myers argues forcefully that a combination of vertical integration and appropriate siting of aquaculture facilities can generate sufficient systemic efficiency to render the use of GMO techniques superfluous. When I think about the risk-mitigation costs inherent in alleviating concerns around GMOs, versus the value- and efficiency-creating costs implied by Gary’s recommended approach, Gary’s argument comes across to me as more compelling. Perhaps as inland, enclosed systems gain traction and become competitive with other forms of food production, the introduction of GMO techniques may make sense to wring even greater efficiency out of already highly efficient system, thus making North American aquaculture that much more competitive.

Let’s not throw the GMO baby out with the bathwater; but let’s be smart in all aspects of developing this industry.

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One Comment on “Aquaculture & GMOs: Sorting Out the Issues”

  1. Dave Conley Says:


    As you can appreciate, this is going to be a difficult topic to discuss for a lot of people. May I suggest that we entertain an open mind and discuss the facts and not devolve into the ‘Monsanto diatribe’ as the reason for all the concerns about GE animals.

    To focus the discussion, we are talking about GE (genetic engineered) fish, the AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon to be specific, because this is the only GE animal being reviewed in the FDA permit process. Each GE animal will be reviewed and assessed separately using the FDA’s science-based regulatory review process.

    As you know, fish are not plants that pollinate so all the arguments that relate to that concern are not relevant.

    To address question # 1, as you already know, I do not think the GE salmon is inherently dangerous. If there is danger I would like to see the evidence, not just speculation.

    To address question # 2 and 3 regarding escapes and mitigation of risk, the GE salmon eggs are subject to a pressure shock process that results in 99% triploid fish, which renders them sterile. Other research is ongoing to reduce that 1% to zero.

    One example is the research by Grant Vandenberg’s group at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada:

    The proposed research project looks to find an innovative solution to the problem of the escape of farm-raised to fish. Over the past decade, fish escape from net pens has become highly politicized due to the concern that the escaped domestic fish may cause negative ecological impacts on wild fish stocks by out-competing for food and has a source of genetic pollution as a result of interbreeding with natural populations. The project will develop a line of transgenic fish expressing a specific factor that causes an increased requirement for a specific nutrient. Under artificial feeding regimes, the requirement for this nutrient will be covered. In the event offish escape, the escaped fish would be unable to survive due to the fact that the specific nutrient under question would not be found at high enough levels in the fish’s natural prey. As a result of nutrient deficiency, escaped fish would lose condition, become anorexic, fail to reproduce and eventually die.

    The specific objectives of the project are evaluate specific genetic constructs permitting an increase in specific nutrient requirement; verify the ability of a model fish species to appropriately express selected gene construct; validate the ability of nutritional manipulations to overcome higher levels of specific nutrient requirements.

    This project will open the door to the development of an innovative biocontainment strategy for farmed fish species and thus reduce the ecological impact of aquaculture production on wild fish stocks.

    A second example is the work of Øivind Andersen at the food, fisheries and aquaculture research institute Nofima in Norway, who is researching ways of solving problems with early maturing – fish reaching sexual maturity prior to attaining their desired slaughter weight. The new technique, which is still in its initial experimental stages, involves injecting antibodies into sexually mature female fish to prevent her offspring from maturing sexually. More on this is at

    The AquAdvantage salmon is an all female production fish so this technology will have application.

    Many of the concerns people have expressed are addressed by AquaBounty Technologies on their website at and in the AquAdvantage Briefing packet provided by the Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine, Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee for the September 20, 2010 public consultation I encourage people to read these references.

    Regarding question # 4, let the market decide. I believe that no amount of discussion can truly determine the answer to this question.

    I want to remind people that the topic of this discussion has much wider ramifications and recommend that you read: Testimony to the US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture by Calestous Juma, PhD, Professor of the Practice of International Development, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University – Agricultural Biotechnology. Benefits, Opportunities and Leadership.

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