Oslo Business Memo


Genomics - the high-tech we love to hate

Genomics - the high-tech we love to hate

If the salmon in the freezer counter comes with five times the omega three content, half the CO2 footprint of its competitors and half the price per kilo, will it then end up in the shopping trolley?

Tellef Øgrim

Tellef Øgrim

The animals we breed, the plants we grow, harvest and in the end eat are in reality all genetically modified. Tampering with creation started already when primeval man began to cultivate the land eleven thousand years ago.

That which grew quickest, tasted best and looked the freshest out after visits of locusts and drought, became next year's preferred crops.

Through a long history of crossing cows, sheep, dogs and horses, we have reached an age where genetic modification has moved into laboratories and turned high-tech, like almost everything else in our modern world.

Gorm K. Gaare

Gorm K. Gaare

Geneticists, shareholders, and executives associated with the food industry tend to categorize GMO / GE as an updated variant of the selection process man has refined from generation to generation since all through history.

From the first seedtypes were sorted until the development of the AquAdvantage salmon that was approved for sale in the US in November 2015.

Here you can se the news coverage of the FDA decision:


Opt out, or not?

 Experience shows that consumers do not think so. Even the idea that a genetically modified food product is intended for human consumption creates deep skepticism. In many countries, not least in the European Union, where the majority of this fall have announced their execution of the right they have been given to override the Commission’s authorisation of a GMO product and thus stop marketing or usage of the product inside their national markets. The right was the result of a political compromise but recently hit a rock in the political process when a vote in the European Parliament turned it down with a large majority (because of fear that it would lead to new internal border controls in the union).

A scientific proof that a GMO is harmful to health or environment is not needed as it is sufficient to invoke the precautionary principle, to stop a GMO at the border. Any ambition to gain political support for GMO, to for instance to make European farmers more efficient or more competitive, is doomed. The fact that a GMO-friendly food policy is a sure way to fall in the polls and defeat in the next election is enough to make it a topic to avoid for any ambitious politician.

The simplest explanation of the strong opposition to GMO is that it is managed by sentiments and ignores scientific knowledge. However, several analysts have pointed to the fact that there are many examples that GMO does not deliver on its promises. Another explanation takes into consideration that GMO is a lesser usable tool for the comparably smaller fields of European farms.

Also, public concern that big biotech companies might use the patent system to control the food supply globally has inspired GMO skeptics already for many years.

 Most observers regard it as unrealistic that consumers shortly may choose to shop for GM salmon or other food product in European grocery stores.

 The EU Commission itself writes about GMO: Food and feed generally originates from plants and animals grown and bred by humans for several thousand years. Over time, those plants and animals with the most desirable characteristics were chosen for breeding the next generations of food and feed. This was, for example, the case for plants with an increased resistance to environmental pressures such as diseases or with an increased yield.

These desirable characteristics appeared through naturally occurring variations in the genetic make-up of those plants and animals. In recent times, it has become possible to modify the genetic make-up of living cells and organisms using techniques of modern biotechnology called gene technology. The genetic material is modified artificially to give it a new property (e.g. a plant's resistance to a disease, insect or drought, a plant's tolerance to a herbicide, improving a food's quality or nutritional value, increased yield).

Such organisms are called "genetically modified organisms" (GMOs). Food and feed which contain or consist of such GMOs, or are produced from GMOs, are called"genetically modified (GM) food or feed".


GMOs abound in the EU

In spite of the strong opposition to GM products among consumers, large quantities of GM soya and maize are already being imported into Europe as animal feed.

 Some calculations state that as much as 80 % of soya and 30 % of seed is genetically modified and that 70 % of farm animals in the union consume GM feed.


Points and preferences are picked selectively in today’s debate about gene technology.


That does not, however, imply that humans will find GM products in European supermarkets in the foreseeable future. Scientists and business professionals have long ago realized that many of the challenges the sea farming industry faces could be fought efficiently if the industry could arm itself with GMO. Problems stemming for problems like illness, or lice, resistance against medicine, and not least the medicine (or poison) usage itself, already create loss goodwill for fish farming.

Any campaigning for a gene-technological solution to these problems would be a dangerous measure for the aquaculture business.

Odd Magne Rødseth

Odd Magne Rødseth

Even if the company he works for is not itself working on genetically modifying salmon, Odd Magne Rødseth, chairman of the board of the breeding firm AquaGen considers the debate about GMO in Europe today to be somewhat skewed.


- Points and preferences are picked selectively in today’s debate about gene technology. The meta-studies done by the Commission are very clear. At the same time it is the consumer’s reaction that governs the field, says Rødseth, who also reminds that gene technology made the development of a vaccine against Ebola possible.


He also sees the EU policy to be unfair at no EU countries today accept GMO soya in salmon feed while it is used for chicken feed.

The questions are if the GMO-hostile climate would change if the technology were used to combine more efficient production with reducing the same production’s co2 footprint and to improve the health of the fish.

Today, Rødseth does not doubt that a salmon, larger and cheaper than the rest, would not stand a chance if it were to reach the freezer counter in a European supermarket freezer counter.


AquAdvantage - a game changer?


Breakthrough? Signals we get from Norwegian fish farmers indicate that the AquAdvantage Salmon does not add much in terms of quality to a well-bred farmed salmon.

If that assumption is correct, success is not guaranteed for the AquAdvantage salmon, that was recently approved access to the American food market by the US Food and Drug Administration. The real test for the genetically modified fish is whether stores will take it in and, if so, if we the consumers will buy it. 

The AquAdvantage salmon is a genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. A growth hormone-regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter (that initiates transcription of the gene) from an ocean pout were added to the Atlantic's 40,000 genes.

These genes enable it to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer. The purpose of the modifications is to increase the speed at which the fish grows, without affecting its ultimate size or other qualities. The fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.


What if consumers in five years are offered a salmon that has five times the omega three content, half the CO2 footprint of its competitors and half the price per kilo?


The Dallas Morning News in Texas, USA, provided a first impression of the market’s reaction to the federal approval when the newspaper interviewed Jon Alexis, owner of TJ’s Seafood Market & Grill in Dallas, shortly after the approval. “We don’t plan on selling it. I don’t understand the need for it. We have a healthy wild salmon population and high-quality farm-raised salmon”, Alexis told the newspaper.

Rødseth adds that “AquaBounty is a bad case. It lacks the health component.”

He is himself not alien to the thought that the future will bring modified salmon that is both more healthy, more environmentally sustainable and more efficiently produced, and that such a product could have a better chance than the AquAdvantage salmon.

- What if consumers in five years are offered a salmon that has five times the omega three content, half the CO2 footprint of its competitors and half the price per kilo? Will it be considered for a place in the shopping trolley?

 Even GMO products is not a hit in today’s food market, Rødseth thinks that the salmon will be among the first GMO food products to arrive at your local supermarket.


GM superpower on the rise?

If not here in Europe, it might happen first in a country like China. Rødseth seems secure that China is aiming at becoming a superpower within the GMO-field.

Earlier this year President Xi Jinping was reported saying that his country should “boldly research and innovate, [and] dominate the high points of GMO techniques”. Hitherto China has been reluctant to let loose GM products (GMO-derived soybeans and corn are used as livestock feed, human consumption of GMO-based food is banned except for cooking oil and papayas). Bloomberg now reports a “gearing up” to turn the country into a “GMO power”.

If that will indeed become the case, the GMO discussion can also become a discussion about who gets the most out of the innovative and economical side of GMO.

From a trade perspective, the AquAdvantage salmon can make some big changes. The business idea behind the product is to develop a fish that grows fast in land-based farms and that the FDA thus opens up for cost-efficient and environmentally friendly production in the US. The aim is that such production could replace the import of salmon from countries like Chile and Norway. Atlantic salmon is the second most important seafood product in the US, the potential for AquAdvantage could be significant if they manage to gain support from the investor market and consumers.


That protein crave

Globally, forces like population growth, income growth and will increase demand for food of animal origin. Animal food production has increased dramatically in the past and is likely to increase in the future. With the expected rate of population growth  (1,5 % per year), combined with an estimated increase in meat consumption of  7% per year the coming 20-30 years, demand for animal food will continue to grow.

The same factors that drove the increase in total meat consumption, in addition to an increased awareness of health and environmental issues in relation to food and food production, have tripled the global consumption of fish. In 2012 farmed food fish contributed a record 42.2 percent of the total 158 million tons of fish produced by capture fisheries and aquaculture. In 1990 the share was 13.4 percent and in 2000 25.7 percent. With wild fish production stagnating, it is expected that aquaculture will continue to outpace the capture fisheries production in the future

Per capita fish consumption continues to rise, up from 10 kg in the 1960s to more than 19 kg in 2012. Fish is an increasingly important source of energy, protein and a range of essential nutrients, accounting for almost 17 percent of the global population’s intake of animal protein.


New knowledge

Established breeding techniques are today target towards different fish species. Although the programs vary regarding selection strategy, technology implemented, number and type of traits, well-designed programs have demonstrated a substantial response to selection for different important traits.

The present is considered a period of unprecedented change in our understanding of biology. The availability of the whole genome assembly of the chicken (2004), cattle (2008), pig (2012), and salmon (2015), allow scientist to probe directly into the genetic code of life. Some will see these opportunities as very exciting, opening up for new ways to improve the food supply to a growing world population and to improve the health and welfare of humans and domesticated animals.  Other fears the consequences of this fiddling with nature.

The development of a wide range of molecular biological and biotechnological tools with potential application in fish breeding is by experts categorized into three areas; Reproduction technology, genomics, and transgenic technology.

Artificial insemination is long established in aquaculture as a central method of animal reproduction, with an essential role in breeding programs and genetic dissemination.  

Cryopreservation of eggs and embryos has so far not been possible in aquatic species. However, cryopreservation of milt have been achieved in some important aquaculture species, and have already implemented in commercial breeding programs and are contributing to disseminate breed improvement.

Genomics is the study of animal DNA, its organization into genes, the roles and interaction of gene products, the control of gene expression, and all downstream impact on animals. At the sequence level, genomic research is yielding genetic markers for selection, pedigree control, and traceability. The most important category is small repeat sequences of DNA (single nucleotide polymorphism, microsatellites)  scattered across the entire genome and used as landmarks to construct a map of the genome. To implement genetic tests as a part of selection decision in commercial breeding programs, a linkage between these landmarks on the chromosome and the genetic variability of traits of interests has to be established.


Follow that fish!

Traceability schemes for aquaculture species are essential for tracing market products to farm origin. In Norway, it will probably become mandatory for the salmon industry to implement a traceability system for Atlantic salmon to ensure that each escapee can be traced back to a responsible owner/company.

Several strategies for industry-wide traceability in Atlantic salmon have been suggested, and yet each has limitations. A traceability scheme using DNA markers has shown particular promise and has been implemented in the farmed salmon industry in Norway to trace escaped fish back to their cage of origin in the case of local escape events

Organism into which foreign DNA have been artificially introduced and integrated into their genomes are called transgenic organisms or genetically engineered animal. Since the mid 80ties introducing desired foreign DNA into fertilized or newly fertilized eggs by microinjection or electroporation has produced many species of GMO or transgenic fish.

Although, the main motivation up to now has been to used transgenic fish in experimental models for basic scientific investigations, transgenic fish aimed for other purposes are expected to reach the marketplace in just a few years.  The GloFish, a transgenic zebrafish expressing a red fluorescent protein from a sea anemone, has become the first transgenic animal approved by FDA and entered the US marketplace in 2004.


I feed my kid GMO

Inventive slogans cannot alter the fact that the anti-GMO movement wins the battle for public support.

New GMOs, new controversies 

The use this technology to produce GMO fish for human consumption will continue to be a controversial issue. Supporters claim that GMO enhances the performance and profitability of farmed aquatic resources and improve food security. Opponents argue that they pose a significant risk to the environment and possibly to the human health.  Although there is a universal consensus that GMO should be regulated, there is still considerable disagreement as to how to regulate.

In the European Union, the GM authorization process is said to be under review. The latest authorisation, stamped by the EU Commission, is in itself an illustration of the uncertainty surrounding the regulation of GMOs in the union and of the temperature of the discussion. In December 2015, the Commission approved the two GMOs MON87427 maize and NK603xT25 maize for food and feed use. The approval will, however, meet strong resistance in the European Parliament, and, if approved will most probably cause several countries to use their right to forbid the usage of the GMOs within their borders, a right that we have seen that the Parliament opposes, based on completely other EU policy concerns.