The Future of Fish is Tech

I love fish. I grew up eating fresh fish, purchased from a retail fish store in our town. These were common for years. They smelled like the ocean. Cod was a family favorite. I still remember the lovely way cod filets flake apart after they’re cooked. Delicious with a squeeze of lemon juice. But no more. Cod stocks have collapsed. Fishing for cod in the North Atlantic is severely restricted and frequently prohibited. Hundreds of years ago, cod was so plentiful people claimed they could scoop the fish out of the water by hand.

Eating fish anymore is a minefield of conflicting ethical choices. And that’s an understatement. Ocean fish stocks are being depleted to the point of collapse for many species. Cod is just one sad example. Everything is being overfished. And some of the fishing fleets use slave labor. All-You-Can-Eat shrimp anyone?

In light of these realities, I’m particularly concerned about the wisdom of encouraging people to eat more fish. The highly regarded Mediterranean Diet is well known for promoting fish over all other meats. More and more people on the planet; less and less fish. How are we all supposed to eat more fish? The math doesn’t work.

Fish farms to the rescue! … ? They come with their own potential problems, from pollution of local coastal waters to escape of farmed fish into wild populations. Now it’s not just farmed fish, it’s GMO farmed fish. The FDA recently cleared AquAdvantage Salmon, created with GMO technology, for sale in the US.

GMO Refresher Course

You’ve probably heard the term GMO — Genetically Modified Organism — and perhaps have been told that this is a scary technology that signals the end of the world. Or you think GMO is something added to food, like a pesticide. In fact, it’s a gene splicing technique used to insert genes into plants or animals that add some desirable characteristic in the plant or animal in question. Faster growth, resistance to a fungus, longer shelf life — these are some examples.

The controversy arises from the fact that the inserted genes are usually from some other quite unrelated organism. Inserting genes from bacteria into a feed crop to create pesticide resistance, for example. Anti-GMO people don’t like the idea that organisms can be fundamentally changed, even if it’s for a beneficial result. There are outrageous, unsubstantiated, fabricated and inflammatory claims that GMO foods cause cancer or have some other dire effect. So far actual science hasn’t found this, but you can’t convince activists. Not even with a letter from over 100 Nobel Prize winners supporting GMO crops. So you can easily imagine that GMO salmon won’t be on the activists shopping lists.

The point of this particular GMO salmon is that is grows fast compared to regular old wild salmon. Given that there are around 8 billion people on the planet, we need to increase the food supply in ways that are reliable, sustainable and that support healthy diets. Salmon is popular and healthy. Finding a way to produce more salmon in a more efficient way would be a good idea. So scientists (in Canada) created this variation on salmon by inserting genes from Chinook salmon and ocean pout (a fish) into wild Atlantic salmon. Result: AquAdvantage.

I haven’t tried it, or any GMO salmon for that matter. I’ve certainly eaten farmed salmon. The only question I have is that salmon that grow extra fast may become like the chickens that are bred (not with GMO) to grow extra fast. The poor chickens are reportedly so top heavy, with huge breasts, that they fall over. Also the breast meat ends up with a weird texture (although I’m guessing most people now think the strangely rubbery texture is “normal”). So I’ll be curious about how fast growth affects salmon. Will the texture and flavor be the same?

Like it or not, technology is going to dictate much of what happens with the food supply in the future. GMO may actually go away, once scientists figure out how to use the newer CRISPR gene editing technology to edit the genes in the plant or animal to make the desired changes. No more inserting genes from another organism. Just rearrange the genes already there.

This is the technology that was in the news late last year, when a scientist in China announced he’d edited the genes of human embryos. A scientific uproar ensued, and he was widely condemned for this. But CRISPR will certainly be used in food production at some point. Better flavor, improved texture, longer shelf life, faster growth, less use of water or fertilizer or pesticides. All are desirable traits in livestock and food crops.

Eventually we may not even have meat from actual animals. We’ll have pieces of meat, grown in labs to uniform standards. Salmon filets with no bones or skin. Chicken breasts with no bones. Steaks perfectly portioned and engineered to be lower in fat but taste great. No fish farming or feedlots or poultry cages.

So back to GMO salmon. Should you be afraid of it? I don’t think so. It’s not dangerous. I’m more concerned about the flavor and texture, because I don’t particularly like the lack of flavor and weird texture of factory chicken. Well see.

You also don’t need to be worried that it will sneak onto your plate. GMO foods are labeled as such; there will be no mystery about it. And keep in mind: all farmed salmon is not GMO. If you object to GMO technology, the easiest way to avoid those foods is to buy organic. By definition, organic foods will not be GMO. Or check labels for GMO.

What will happen when CRISPR technology enters the food chain? I suspect it will be subject to the same regulatory controls used for GMO. The foods will be evaluated for safety. It could take years to get a product to market. But it will happen. I’m not particularly concerned about the technology or the safety. Humans have essentially been using more primitive versions of gene technology for centuries, cross-breeding plants and animals to get desirable results. It’s been very hit-or-miss along the way, inefficient and not always successful.

GMO or not, farmed fish reduce pressure on wild fish populations. And fish farms could have other benefits. Farmed oysters filter and cleanse water, so it’s a Win-Win: make money from oysters while cleaning up your environment.

When AcuAdvantage Salmon comes to the grocery store, I’ll probably try it. Nutritionally it’s not significantly different from other types of salmon. Maybe it will be cheaper. Maybe it will taste great. Or not. We’ll see. If only someone could farm cod. GMO or not, I’d definitely try that.

image of Atlantic Salmon by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service