Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

By The Dirt To Dinner Team June 8, 2022 | 6 MIN READ

The Dirt

AquaBounty is a biotechnology company that specializes in aquaculture. They’re best known for their development of genetically engineered salmon. AquaBounty’s goal is not to replace conventional salmon, but to help feed the world.

Global Food

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Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

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By The Dirt To Dinner Team June 8, 2022 | 6 MIN READ

The Dirt

AquaBounty is a biotechnology company that specializes in aquaculture. They’re best known for their development of genetically engineered salmon. AquaBounty’s goal is not to replace conventional salmon, but to help feed the world.

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Disclaimer: Dirt to Dinner has no commercial interests or links to the organizations or enterprises we write about – only a desire to call attention to innovative approaches to dealing with challenges facing our food system.

We last spoke with AquaBounty President and CEO Sylvia Wulf and CCO David Melbourne in December 2020, just before Covid’s global eruption. Much has happened since then, including the announcement of the opening of a new facility in Ohio and the first distribution of their genetically engineered (“GE”) salmon into the market. We sat down with Sylvia and David again recently to talk about all that’s happened in the last two years.

The formation of genetically engineered salmon

Founded by Elliot Entis in the early 1990s, AquaBounty has been committed to manufacturing the first commercially produced GE salmon. However, the first salmon AquaBounty harvested in 2020 was conventional salmon, which was done to commercialize the Indiana farm before GE salmon eggs were stocked.

Their main facility is in Albany, Indiana – a 122,000-square-foot property that raises 1,200 metric tons of salmon each year. They’re currently sending head-on, gutted fish direct to customers and working with several processing partners who produce fillets required to fill customer orders.  But this will change when AquaBounty opens its new, first large-scale commercial salmon farm in Pioneer, Ohio in 2023.

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

Pioneer, Ohio groundbreaking event: Jason Robertson, CRB; Tim Derickson, JobsOhio; Lu Cooke, Governor’s office; Megan Hausch, WEDCO; David Kelly, Innovasea; Leonard Hubert, Senator Portman’s office; Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty President and CEO; Sam White, CRB; and Ed Kidston, Pioneer Mayor. 

With this new facility, AquaBounty will fully manage the filleting process for the salmon. When they do, they’ll start looking for uses for the unused part of the fish, including composting. Pioneer will not only have RAS, or Recirculating Aquaculture System, technology but will also be close to AquaBounty’s major markets, continuing to allow it to generate  a lower carbon footprint than what we see in salmon produced overseas and flown in.

During the Covid shutdown, AquaBounty continued to grow their conventional fish, but the drop in demand created by closed restaurants helped drive up AquaBounty’s inventory. In response, Sylvia and David elected to donate the entire conventional harvest – about 52,000 pounds of fish – to food banks. The decision helped feed people during difficult times. It also provided time to test, learn, and refine their salmon harvesting techniques. These lessons paid off with the very first harvest of GE salmon that followed.

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

Exterior plans for Pioneer, Ohio facility. 

Sustainability and Technology

AquaBounty’s production method is also more sustainable and better for the environment than catching salmon from the ocean. Land-based harvesting has shown to be more sustainable long-term than harvests that rely on sea cages. AquaBounty salmon also has a lower carbon footprint since they’re not using air freight for distribution, and they use fewer natural resources since production is in a controlled environment.

The technology that AquaBounty uses allows for a more sustainable fish, as well. They use a recirculating aquaculture system (“RAS”), which means that the water is constantly recirculated, cleaned, and filtered, and then goes back out cleaner than when it came in. This not only allows for cleaner water but also uses less water since it’s recycled. The new farm in Pioneer, Ohio, will draw on the latest technology in RAS and will also give the company opportunities for green and renewable energy down the road.

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

RAS fish are different from other farmed fish because the clean, recycled water removes some unwanted matter from inside the fish. This helps give it the clean, mild flavor. The technology AquaBounty uses has also allowed them to better understand the fish’s microbiome and how it can be changed in the feeding regimen. The consumer can be assured a clean, nutritious fish that’s sustainably produced and will help meet the growing demand for seafood.

Who’s buying GE salmon?

Personally, I haven’t seen a “GE” label or “bioengineered” disclosure on any of the salmon in grocery stores, so where is this GE salmon going? AquaBounty says that its primary focus for distribution is currently on the foodservice channel, seafood distributors, and wholesalers. They’re currently selling all  of their GE salmon to distributors and wholesalers, and being the only company in their specific market, they’re selling out weekly.

So, are we unknowingly eating GE salmon at a restaurant? Maybe. Restaurants don’t have to disclose the source of their seafood offerings (Yes, it could be from a fish farm in China or any other lesser-traced supplier.) Nor do restaurants have to tell you that you’re eating AquaBounty salmon.  It is important to note, however, that the salmon AquaBounty sells to its customers is labeled as GE and contains the Bioengineered disclosure. Taste alone won’t help, either – GE salmon may even taste better than some of the salmon being served to us today.

What do consumers think?

AquaBounty conducted a survey in 2019 to find out what consumers think about GE salmon. The results: most consumers don’t even know what a GMO really is or what it means to be “genetically engineered.” Many consumers also said that they know they’re not supposed to like foods that have been genetically engineered, but they’re not sure why. Seventy percent of consumers said they had the intention to purchase this salmon.

The concern is not the ingredient profile but the environment. Some consumers worry that the GE salmon will escape from their indoor tanks and end up in the oceans and genetically mix with wild salmon. But AquaBounty is land-based, not ocean-based. Their fish swim in tanks with seven layers of containment, meaning the chances of the fish escaping are nearly impossible.

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

Environmental benefits aside, will consumers taste a difference? It’s not widely discussed, but land-based fish can often have a ‘muddy’ flavor that some consumers contend doesn’t taste ‘clean.’ AquaBounty doesn’t have this issue.

At harvest time, AquaBounty fish are removed from the grow-out tank (where they are fed and, well, grow), then placed in a clean-tank conditioning unit with fresh water.

For the next 12 to 14 days, the fish swim around in waste-free water. The result: a clean flavor: “Seafood that has a strong seafood flavor can be a turn-off to consumers, so people enjoy the mild flavor,” says Melbourne.

From a nutritional standpoint, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either. AquaBounty GE salmon essentially has the same nutritional profile as other farmed salmon from Norway or the Atlantic Ocean. The only slight difference you may see is in the fat content. Farmed salmon, in general, is fattier than wild salmon, meaning it has a higher omega-3 concentration. And we want this omega 3 fatty acid in our diet for its myriad benefits.

However, it still is a very slight difference. In fact, when the FDA did their review of AquaBounty’s GE salmon, they found that it’s not any different at all than regular farmed salmon.

Why do we need companies like AquaBounty?

Our global population is growing at an alarming rate. By 2050, we’re expected to have a world population of up to 10 billion people; that’s a lot of mouths to feed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that it’ll take 60% more food to feed these extra two billion people.

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat seafood twice a week to lower the chances of developing diet-related illnesses, especially heart disease. Salmon is not only one of the most highly recommended kinds of seafood to consume, but it’s also already second in per capita consumption in the U.S., with shrimp being number one.

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?So, let’s do a little math here. If there are 10 billion people on the planet, and they all eat the recommended two servings of seafood per week, which would be 104 servings in a year, that’s over one trillion total servings per year. That’s a LOT of fish.

If people start eating the amount of seafood they need every week, where will we get it from? The oceans, rivers, and lakes are already overfished. We need innovations and new solutions; otherwise, there won’t be enough. This is the reason why AquaBounty does what it does.

We can’t shun or turn a blind eye to innovations and ways to grow or produce our food. Companies like AquaBounty will be the reason we have enough food to feed the world. We need new technologies and innovations to constantly keep up with growing demand through a myriad of solutions, without vilifying one another.

Forbidding genetically-engineered foods will not make the world healthier; it’ll just make it a less fed, more hungry, and food-insecure place.

What does the future hold for AquaBounty?

First, AquaBounty embraces e-commerce and wants to sell its fish directly to consumers. Through a sales channel like this, they will be able to sell more fish to the consumer, allowing them to build a relationship and learn how to engage the consumer with the product they’re providing. This includes educating the consumer on their product and the process.

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?
An elevated look inside the planned Pioneer, Ohio facility. 

Sylvia and David also noted that the two things that the world sees as a negative actually helped AquaBounty – Covid-19 and climate change. They found that Covid allowed people to understand the benefits of biotechnology and its targeted way of solving challenges while also being safe and effective.

In terms of climate change, they found that people finally began to understand if we don’t think about our food and supply chain differently, we not only won’t be able to feed the world, but we definitely won’t be able to do it in a way that’s sustainable.

“We can’t eliminate the tools that will allow us to feed the world sustainably.”

– David Melbourne

There’s also a large opportunity for growth for AquaBounty. They’re looking at opening four to five more salmon farms in North America and possibly expanding to the Middle East and South America, as well. Will this allow the United States to hit pause on China, where we get the majority of our seafood?

, Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?

AquaBounty also says there’s an opportunity for other species to be raised using this kind of technology — not genetically engineered per se, but with similar land-based RAS technology.

Two of these species include shrimp and tilapia. For shrimp, AquaBounty says it can apply its expertise in land-based farming and the understanding they have of biology and water technology to produce more sustainable shrimp.

If AquaBounty can farm tilapia like their land-based salmon, they can produce a more economical fish that’s produced locally and is safer than what we import from China.

As AquaBounty continues to grow and build more salmon farms, their technology will continue to improve. The capital costs will come down, making their GE salmon more attainable for consumer consumption and possibly less expensive than other fish we find in the grocery store. We can’t wait to see where the future takes AquaBounty.

The Bottom Line

AquaBounty's bioengineered salmon can help feed our growing world population in an innovative, sustainable, and economically sound way. Not to mention the future innovations applying the same technology. It will be critical to consider all options and opportunities to feed future generations.