Can Technology Make Salmon Farming Sustainable?

Feeding fish GMO yeast may solve one of the major problems with aquaculture. Should it be embraced?

Verlasso's Atlantic salmon farming in the Pacific. (Photo: Images Etc. Ltd./Getty Images)

Jun 11, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

It’s a question that is posed in restaurants and at fish counters across the country countless times a day: Is the salmon farm-raised or wild?

For eco-minded eaters, noses wrinkle if the answer comes back farm-raised, and for good reason. Despite progress in the salmon farming industry, many of the very issues that made it the poster-child for bad aquaculture practices in the first place endure today: escapement of nonnative species, disease, pollution, antibiotic use and reliance upon forage fish.

Over at The Guardian, my colleague Marc Gunther tells the story of Verlasso’s “harmoniously raised salmon”—a joint venture between agri-chemical giant DuPont and the Chilean seafood company AquaChile. DuPont has genetically tweaked yeast with genes from Omega 3-producing algae, and says the yeast is the key to making salmon farming significantly more sustainable by drastically reducing the need for fishmeal.

Gunther says it’s that pesky genetically modified yeast detail, in part, that’s keeping Verlasso’s fish off the ice at Whole Foods—and perhaps holding back a new kind of sustainable salmon farming.

“Whole Foods Market—the U.S.’s most important retailer of organic, natural or sustainable foods—won’t carry Verlasso salmon. Why not? Partly because Verlasso is raising Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean, and Whole Foods prefers suppliers who farm species in their native waters, and partly because Verlasso occasionally uses antibiotics, which are prohibited by Whole Foods. In addition, Whole Foods is seeking to carry fewer foods using GMOs—even though, in this case, the GMO yeast is a substitute for fish oils,” Gunther writes.

It’s true that Whole Foods has strict quality-standard guidelines for farmed seafood (you can read the details here) that include a preference for raising native fish and prohibits the use of antibiotics. But the fact that Verlasso’s salmon consume genetically engineered yeast is not keeping it out of the store. Nor is it keeping corn-fed beef or pork out of the meat section, or GMO chips from the snack aisle.

“The reason we haven’t worked with [Verlasso] is they use antibiotics and they’re farming Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters. It’s not an issue of GMOs per se. If they met our standards, we wouldn’t rule them out,” a Whole Foods spokesperson tells TakePart.

Just to be crystal clear here, this is not the same salmon as AquaBounty Technology’s AquAdvantage fish, which is itself genetically modified—and not approved by the FDA for human consumption and will not be carried by Whole Foods and several other grocers should the FDA eventually grant its approval. Verlasso’s salmon is not transgene, but consumes feed that relies on a genetically modified yeast that has been GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) approved.

Whole Foods’ labeling commitment, announced in March, isn’t just about corn chips and cereal. It will also apply to producers of meat and seafood items that rely upon genetically engineered feed. For cattle, hogs and poultry, it would apply to animals fed GE corn and soybean. For salmon, it could be DuPont’s yeast. (Although it’s not the only option in the works—fish feed derived from genetically engineered soybeans is also being embraced as an alternative to forage fish. In fact, Whole Foods already carries some farmed salmon that rely on GE soy for part of their diet.)

“In 2018, customers will see a label in the stores if the animals are fed GMO feed,” Whole Foods tells us, though the exact wording of that label is still in the works.

Gunther argues that Whole Foods’ stance on GMOs could squash efforts to use technology to fix environmental problems—in the case of Verlasso, a GE yeast that’s showing promising results.

It’s a tricky and fascinating tightrope. If genetic modification can be used to solve a problem everyone agrees is in dire need of solving—like reducing the pressure on critical forage fish populations—should it be something consumers embrace? As someone who has covered seafood for years, I want to say the answer here is yes. And Verlasso director Scott Nichols’ sincerity about being transparent and willingness to have a conversation feels authentic.

“I am available regularly and I speak with folks when they have questions. The transparency that I hope to practice and try my best to practice has been recognized. I don’t avoid discussions,” he says.

That’s true. We’ve personally met with Nichols on numerous occasions. He’s been open, respectful and responsive to every question we’ve posed, and without hesitation or prompting, he will delve into lengthy conversations about how they’ve ensured the genetically altered yeast won’t cause harm should the food linger in the water, and not in the belly of a salmon. In case you’re wondering, it’s killed through heat and something they call shearing (which smashes the cells), but retains the nutrition the fish need.

But spend some time on Verlasso’s website and you can’t help but notice that terms like “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” are glaringly absent—most notably on the very page titled “About Our Yeast.” There’s not a peep. And it was only a few months ago that DuPont chipped in a staggering $5.4 million dollars to defeat California’s Prop. 37 GMO label measure.

Geoff Shester, California program director for Oceana, spends a lot of time on forage fish issues, and says reducing demand for forage fish in aquaculture is a good thing.

“We’re underestimating the value of forage fish. Turning them into fishmeal is an irresponsible use and a waste of a valuable resource,” he says.

But, he warns, there’s a bigger picture to consider. While Verlasso is tackling one aspect of salmon farming, feed, there are still the other spokes in that wheel, including the very issues that kept it out of Whole Foods: antibiotic use, farming non-native species, etc. And, says Shester, good or bad, they’re adding something new to the conversation.

“When you introduce a GMO into the equation, there is an unknown and a risk involved. The burden of proof needs to go both ways. We don’t have enough science and understanding to know. You might be tempted to think it’s more harmonious, but you’re opening a whole new set of risks and that’s the tradeoff,” he says.

If you’re interested in getting more Omega 3s more than eating salmon, Shester has a solution for you: “Eat the forage fish yourself. That’s where you get the win-win.”