Posted tagged ‘AMB’

Aquaculture & GMOs: Sorting Out the Issues

September 2, 2012

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.


It Takes a Village to Raise a Digital Fish

January 26, 2012

Thanks to Gary Myers, Technology Consultant USA at AquaMaof, for catching me in a contradiction in my recent post, Inventing the Digital Fish.  In a comment on the Aquaculture Means Business LinkedIn group, Gary notes:

“Your discussion appears to be in conflict when you state `removing 6 layers of middlemen’ (I expect then a reduction in costs) yet you discuss the need for a “premium price”.

Gary is absolutely right on this point — while certain products may command premiums for sustainability or locality in certain markets, thus fattening the bottom line, such premiums are too subject to market and economic trends and events to be considered essential to the success or failure of an aquaculture enterprise. If my “digitization” analogy is to have any meaning, then technology and process improvements should result in greater and more reliable availability of product and, if anything, lower costs for most products in most markets.

Separately, Gary also asks:

“You suggest reducing the number of middlemen for the sales side; what about reducing the middlemen on some of the major input costs, such as feed?”

This is a great point; and, yes, removing intermediaries where possible for major inputs, such as feed or energy, makes loads of sense.

Inventing the Digital Fish

January 25, 2012

 One of the things I enjoy about the discussions on the Aquaculture Means Business LinkedIn group is the fact  that, despite my gray whiskers, I get to feel like the “new kid” on the seafood block. Coming out of the business-to-business media world (or, “The Industry Formerly Known as Trade Publishing”), I am constantly being reminded how much I have to learn about seafood, aquaculture, and all their sub-markets and sub-disciplines.

At the same time, I am continually gaining insight into common business realities that transcend specific industries: the need to understand your customers and the problems they need solved; supply/demand; risk management and mitigation; market dynamics and investor psychology.

I’ve recently been having a productive conversation with LinkedIn group member Durwood Dugger about the opportunities and challenges facing aquaculture. Durwood, as president at Biocepts International, is a 40-year veteran in the field who I’m sure has forgotten more about the business of aquaculture than I will ever know.  He has clearly done more and thought a lot longer and harder about how to make these businesses work than I have.

Like many of the industry veterans I speak with, I sense in Durwood an acute awareness of the difficulties aquaculture faces that borders on (but never quite crosses over into) pessimism. These folks have seen more businesses fail than prosper, far fewer thrive than merely survive.  This is the curse of knowledge, isn’t it? History comes to feel more like a description of natural law than a chaos of creative and destructive forces whose ultimate outcome is anybody’s guess.

In the conversation I referred to above, I drew some analogies from my world of information and media to suggest the possibilities I see for the development of aquaculture. Durwood correctly pointed out that my analogies have limits in their applicability to the seafood industry, since physical commodities like fish cannot be digitized.

Or can they?

Okay, the day of breaking tuna down to bits and bytes and beaming them Star Trek-style around the world may still be the stuff of sci-fi, but let’s think a little more deeply about what digitization means. What are the practical effects of digitization and how might they be applied to seafood?

To my mind, digitization’s practical effects can be boiled down to three concepts:

1) Disintermediation (eliminating the middle man)

2) Thinning out material inputs (some people use the term “dematerialization” — while this sounds really cool, I find it misleading. To go back to the publishing analogy, online content may seem “dematerialized”, but it is still created and distributed by means of physical assets and infrastructure. These assets, however, are more uniformly distributed and less obtrusively visible and weighty than the printing presses  and newsrooms of olden times).

3) Loosening the bonds of time and place (content can be created and shared from virtually anywhere at any time).

Disintermediation in an industry as dependent on middlemen as the seafood industry is certainly is a tall order (Durwood: “There will be entire industry sectors that will fight this tooth and nail – because it would take about 6 layers of middlemen — and their margins — out of the average seafood transaction”); but it is by no means implausible. Digital technology has made it easier to distribute and share information, conduct transactions, and build relationships — activities that middlemen historically have had a lock on. Everywhere from music to finance to politics, we’re seeing that lock erode, so I’m optimistic that people far cleverer than I am are working hard on technologies and strategies that will help dislodge these costly layers.

Thinning out material input could, I suppose, be restated as “cost sharing through creative partnerships”. One of the reasons the internet has been as successful as it has been is that a basic distribution infrastructure (the phone system) already existed and, once smart people began to realize the ‘Net’s potential and created the Web, all manner of creative types were willing to jump in and invest their own time, energy, and money to make it better and better, faster and more robust. Long before the big-money people got into the game, it was the garage tinkerers who were coming up with the cool stuff. More to the point, though, people were willing to pay for the value this innovation brought into their homes. Through their subscriptions and their phone bills (remember “dial-up”? Seems like yesterday!), people were willing to pay some amount to access services that, looking back from the perspective conferred by a couple of decades of innovation, seem awfully paltry and primitive. It was the feeble beginning of the technological miracles that we now take for granted and, in fact, get angry at if they don’t work instantaneously.

How does this concept translate into aquaculture? I suppose you’d have to be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative for it to work:

1. Is there a market that would be willing to pay some kind of premium for some kind of farmed fish? The premium might be justified because it:

– Makes a high-value product available to consumers who want it but either can’t get it where they are or the cost is prohibitively high.

– Provides a fresher, more sustainable, or simply local alternative to the same product obtained through conventional means.

The existence of grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe‘s demonstrates that such markets exist — the question is how to serve them cost-effectively?

2. Does the technology exist to spread the cost of production and distribution out among partners, vendors, and customers?

– To some degree, this answer must also address disintermediation. Can price and other market information be accessed and made available that would enable customers (families, restaurants, and stores alike) to go straight to the producer to obtain the most reliable terms? Can exchanges be created or supply-chain management tools or lead-generation databases be developed that not only facilitate transactions but generated additional value in the form of information that can be aggregated, translated, and sold as part of an industry-wide knowledge base?

3. Have other industries that deal in high-volume physical commodities developed models that can be imitated?

4. Are there natural partners — say, grocery or restaurant chains — whose scale, clout, and self-interest could be leveraged? As Durwood mentioned in our conversation: “I’m not aware of any aquaculture producer that has a restaurant chain – or the opposite. When and if that ever happens, then you might see the seafood commodity industry start to make some significant changes.” I agree, and can’t help believing this to be a likely development, especially as Wal-Mart and Target become increasingly interested in “sustainable” and “local”. Are there opportunities for the aquaculture Davids to collaborate with the corporate Goliaths instead of throwing stones?

Loosening the bonds of time and place, if it is to happen, will depend on technological developments, creative partnerships, public-private involvement,  and intensely hyper-local focus. If technology and site selection can dramatically reduce the energy- and labor-intensiveness of production and distribution; if partnerships with states, municipalities, and corporate entities with a focus on sustainability and locality can establish a foothold for aquaculture projects near feed suppliers and/or major markets; if consumers can be educated to care about where their seafood is coming from (remember: EVERY consumer doesn’t have to get it — a significant minority will do) and to be willing to pay for that added value, then I can imagine a loosely connected web of smallish production units empowered by digital exchanges that help producers get found and consumers get the best terms, leveraging shared purchasing power, creating “virtual scale” and competitive advantage.

That’s a lot of “ifs”, some of them bigger and more daunting than others. The good news is, these things don’t have to happen all at once or in any particular order.  The business world is full of models, analogies, and examples of success amid what seems like insuperable odds — examples that, in hindsight, often seem obvious, though at the time their authors were regarded as dreamy-eyed optimists. My vision may not be the way the future plays out, but it’s a vision. What’s your vision?

Does the Future Lie With Offshore Aquaculture?

October 23, 2011

A very rich and productive conversation is going on in the Aquaculture Means Business group  on LinkedIn:  Initiated by group member Michael Albert with the post Future Lies With Offshore Aquaculture, the discussion (12 days old and 45 comments long as I type these words) has been dissecting the original article’s argument and exploded to explore the relative merits of other approaches.  I’m going to do my best in this post to distill the essence of the participants’ positions, but I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that you at least skim the discussion thread, as some of the participants have included valuable links in support of their cases.

(I’m attempting to give a thumbnail summary here — if I inadvertently misrepresent anyone’s arguments, please let me know)

Here goes:

The original article sites Michael Schwartz, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., who argues that “Offshore marine environments offer tremendous potential for seafood production…partly because of limits on land-based or near-shore systems….  However, developing offshore aquaculture presents more than its share of challenges….  Technology for offshore aquaculture is advancing but still in its infancy and there are considerable cost concerns to contend with.”

“We’re not talking about a quick turnaround” for investors, Schwartz says.

Among the challenges to offshore aquaculture, the article sites:

  • Developing feed formulations that require less natural resources (40 nutrients are necessary to raise healthy fish, according to NOAA science coordinator Mike Rust);
  • A “complicated regulatory presence” including local, state and federal layers of government.

Dr. Michael Rubino, director of NOAA Fisheries’ aquaculture program, said that a “complicated regulatory presence” including local, state and federal layers of government, is another major constraint for aquaculture producers operating in U.S. waters, second only to the cost of feed.

“It’s a complicated and uncertain process for businesses to go through,” said Rubino. “Many businesses are simply going to other countries rather than growing seafood at home.”

“OK, so the problem is recognized,” posts Aquaculture Means Business group member Clifford Goudey. “Now what is NOAA going to do about it. The industry has been explaining what is needed for more than 30 years, yet we are still talking about it. Now, more than ever, one would think that jobs might trump bureaucratic inertia.”

Clifford, an engineer with over 30 years of experience in developing technologies for working on and under the ocean aimed at “the introduction of innovative ways of tapping the productivity of the ocean in more sustainable ways”, believes  ” the technology is already available to successfully pursue offshore aquaculture from both an environmental and an economic perspective using submerged containment,” as demonstrated by private enterprise’s involvement in the practice, outside the U.S.

“They have to do it in other countries, remote from the market, where there is a permitting mechanism to facilitate it,” Clifford argues. “In my view we are beyond the need for government funding support. Just get the permitting process in place and they will come.”

AMB group member Gary Myers agrees that government inattention to improving the regulatory environment for offshore aquaculture is the fundamental problem. But Gary, a consultant who specializes in aquaculture Business development and facility design, argues that investing in offshore methods while lobbying and hoping for regulatory change may not be the best use of operators’ energy and resources.

“Can we expect the US government to make any serious improvements opening the opportunity for ocean based aquaculture in the US?” Gary asks. “The history is not good and the future remains a big question; are we wasting the US research dollars on this technology? NOAA has some responsibility for proposing regulatory changes but we have seen very little improvement yet NOAA and others continue to spend research dollars on ocean technology and the research workshops as cited above continue to believe the future is ocean based aquaculture….

“Maybe it is time to focus more on land based aquaculture and solve the associated problems. We may be able to solve these problems in a few years, whereas in 30 years we have not solved the regulatory problem let alone a few remaining technology problems associated with open ocean production…”

Dave Conley, senior consultant and founding Partner at Aquaculture Communications Group and executive director of Aquaculture Without Frontiers, calls attention to the Velella drifter cage project currently being conducted by Kona Blue Water Farms.

“In my mind,” Dave writes, “this bold initiative by Neil Sims and colleagues is reminiscent of the early years of the space program in the 1960s and may lead to numerous advances in other disciplines as a result. Consequently, this project needs and deserves our support as a forward thinking industry.”

Dave’s post about the Velella project generates positive responses from some members, while Gary Myers seems skeptical that offshore aquaculture can overcome cost pressures associated with transportation costs for feed and product. Clifford Myers and John Holmyard, owner of  Offshore Shellfish Ltd., argue that these challenges can be overcome, initially at least, by focusing on high-end products that can command a market premium.

Perhaps the most “outside-the-box” approach is being advocated by Bhaskar Mallimadugula, who asks:  “Has anyone thought of merely restoring fisheries in open ocean so that you can just go out and catch the fish and not have to grow them in cages or other enclosures?” Bhaskar’s  Kadambari Consultants Pvt. Ltd. promotes  fertilizing oceans to cause phytoplankton blooms, “so that carbon is sequestered when phytoplankton die and sink to ocean depths.”  I cannot pretend to understand the technology Bhaskar advocates, let alone its potential implications for ocean health and food supply, but the fact that far more knowledgeable AMB group members than me are not simply dismissing his approach out of hand.  In the discussion of Bhaskar’s proposed approach, members provide links to help readers draw conclusions.

Again, I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE interested readers invest the time to read this discussion thread. What I have written here only scratches the surface of the topmost layer of the iceberg.  The people I’ve cited — and the other group members I’ve not mentioned who are part of this fascinating discussion — have a lot more knowledge to share.

What most impresses me most about the discussions on this group is respectful, constructive tone in which knowledgeable people, often with very different — even opposing — points of view discuss aquaculture topics that matter from a business perspective.  These are the kinds of conversations that need to be encouraged and appreciated if the industry is to grow profitably and sustainably.


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