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There’s a long list of foods that sustainably minded eaters frequently avoid:  factory-farmed pork; cocoa products that have ties to child labor; bluefin tuna. For many — even those of you who are less righteous — farm-raised salmon fits squarely on that list.

There are plenty of reasons it continues to get snubbed by eaters concerned about the environment. Issues that have dogged its production — escapement, pollution, antibiotic use — continue to be part of the current conversation. High on that list of concerns is the fishing pressure on wild forage fish populations that are ground up, turned into fishmeal and fed to farmed salmon.

Forage fish, like sardines, anchovy and menhaden, aren’t just bait for a weekend of  sports fishing. They’re at the very base of the eco-system that supports much of the seafood we humans love to eat.  (“Helloooo spicy tuna roll.”)

While salmon aquaculture has come a long way in getting the feed ratio  down to more sustainable levels, it’s still clear that grinding up four pounds of forage fish to produce one pound of salmon is not something that’s sustainable in the long run.  Add in the rising price of once-cheap forage fish, and you’ve got an industry hungry for a solution.

Verlasso, a joint venture between agri-chemical behemoth DuPont, and Chilean seafood giant AquaChile, thinks it has the answer. They’ve created a genetically engineered yeast that will provide the omega-3 fatty acids their farm salmon need to thrive, and the nutritional benefits eaters covet.

This is not your grandpa’s salmon. It’s new and different, and it’s on menus here in San Diego.

Michael Fung, managing director of Better Halfshell, a San Diego-based seafood wholesaler, says he’s started carrying the product in November. Part of the draw? That Verlasso uses far less fish meal than other farm-raised salmon. The fact that it’s  achieved through the use of genetic modification doesn’t bother Fung.

“No one else has been able to solve the feed problem except for Verlasso,” he said. “Genetic modification is a fact of life now. We’re not going back.”

Fung said he supplies Verlasso salmon to Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido and Liberty Station, the Harbor Island Hilton hotel, Currant American Brasserie and other area restaurants that frequently include it in their purchasing rotation.

Not everyone is as comfortable with the Verlasso product as Fung.

Geoff Shester, the California program director for Oceana, told me that while reducing the pressure on forage fish is welcomed, using a genetically modified ingredient may not be the right solution. (Though to be fair, we, as a nation, have been feeding livestock genetically modified corn and soybeans for years, although that practice is actively being debated as well. A newly released study looked at the health of pigs that consumed a diet of GMO ingredients.)

“There’s no free lunch when you talk about feeding an aquaculture raised fish. You have to feed them something, and whatever you feed them will have an impact,” he says. “You can’t be sure [the GMO yeast] is harmless. That’s the underlying issue.”

While my own interaction with Verlasso’s director, Scott Nichols, has been positive and surprisingly candid, I’m troubled by its ties to DuPont — a company that is not known for its transparency. I think it’s important to remember that DuPont contributed a hefty $5.4 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37 GMO-labeling initiative, second only behind Monsanto’s $8.1 million.

Indeed, while Nichols has welcomed my questions and has answered emails and calls seeking information without fail, consumers without that kind of access would need to rely on the Verlasso website, where  I found it nearly impossible to find information discussing the fact that the yeast is genetically modified. Could Verlasso’s yeast solution significantly help keep forage fish in the ocean? Maybe. But I’d like to see the company be more transparent to every consumer seeking information, and not just me.

How do you feel about Verlasso’s salmon and their genetically engineered yeast? Do you think it’s a good use of technology that can reduce pressure on wild stocks that sorely need it? Or are you concerned that we’re dipping a toe in an untested fishing pond?

Clare Leschin-Hoar

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

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