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Analysis: There's no more hiding from GM salmon

The seafood industry will have to reckon with the economic promise and PR perils of genetically modified salmon.

The seafood and retail industries have, in general, been able to duck and dodge questions on genetically engineered salmon. With AquaBounty Technologies a little more than a concept and a few pilot projects behind it, GM salmon has for years been more of an abstract concept -- not a product to be reckoned with.

Well, the company just got a whole lot less abstract, and if investors continue to bite the way they did Friday, it will have a lot more money to grow. Within hours of the news that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had given the long-awaited nod for GM salmon to be sold in the market, the value of the company's shares skyrocketed, adding more than $50 million (€44.5 million) to its market cap.

With the ability to develop and sell the product in the US market, AquaBounty now has the makings of a viable commercial operation, not just from its small facility in Indiana but via partnerships with salmon-producing companies.

Though some major salmon farming companies have said definitively they will not grow or sell genetically modified salmon, most have conducted a master class in hedging their bets over the years.

Mowi (formerly Marine Harvest), Cooke and Cermaq, for example, have called for clear labeling, and consistent with the International Salmon Farmers Association (ISFA), the companies have said they do "not support the commercial production of genetically engineered (transgenic) fish for human consumption."

Following Health Canada's and the Canada Food Safety Inspection Agency's all-clear for GM salmon, the ISFA said its position would "not change until the transgenic fish has been declared safe by all relevant regulatory bodies and until the market demands it."

Major salmon farming giants will be forced to take some kind of stance on GM salmon, and not just via associations. And they may want to think twice about how much they distance themselves, if they do at all. IntraFish will find out where people stand in the coming days.

With costs rising, conventional salmon growth slowing and a lot of unknowns about best practices for land-based production, GM salmon may have a role to play in the mix. And the future of food certainly will incorporate a lot more science than it does today.

More significantly, NGOs that have for years hammered away at the conventional salmon farming sector will now be forced to reckon with dual realities: with land-based production of GM salmon removing any risk of escape and interbreeding, fish using less feed and energy to reach market size is ostensibly more sustainable than net pen or even conventional land-based salmon farming. But at the same time, the larger environmental movement is firmly anti-GM, though evidence that GM foods are harmful to human health is spotty at best.

You have to give it to AquaBounty: Its investors and management team were willing to spend millions and millions of dollars into getting approval for the sale of the world's first genetically modified animal. The gamble paid off, and now the broader seafood sector has to deal with the reality that its products may soon sit side by side with what's been one of the most vilified food products.

AquaBounty still has a lot to do before it can claim complete victory. There is still the matter of an angry Alaska political contingent that is determined to require a new level of federal labeling for the fish. Marketing the fish puts in play a GM vs. non-GM salmon scenario that adds a layer of consumer education that will likely be a challenge as well. But the FDA approval adds that critical bit of credibility AquaBounty has needed and spent more than two decades to obtain. And for its commitment alone, the company deserves credit and more than a little respect -- no matter what comes next.

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OUT NOW! Industry Report: The land-based salmon farming revolution

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