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Capitalism and the Commodification of Salmon

From Wild Fish to a Genetically Modified Species

Stefano B. Longo is an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. Rebecca Clausen is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College. Brett Clark is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah. This article is in part based on their book, The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming).

On February 25, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed the public comment period for the environmental assessment of the AquAdvantage Salmon. Their review of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption concluded with a “finding of no significant impact.”1 Numerous fishermen, consumer safety advocates, public health officials, ecologists, and risk assessment experts submitted comments that directly challenged this finding. Despite the opposition, it is very likely that the FDA’s approval of this genetically engineered salmon and precedent-setting regulatory process is imminent.

AquAdvantage Salmon is a patented fish created and owned by a leading aquaculture technology corporation. The species has been genetically altered so that the fundamental traits and characteristics of an Atlantic salmon are now blended with the ocean pout, an eel-like species, and the Chinook, a salmon native to the Pacific Ocean. The result is a genetically modified salmon that grows at twice the rate of an Atlantic salmon, enabling it to reach a harvestable size in eighteen months instead of three years. Time magazine heralded it as one of “the best inventions of 2010.”2

The aquaculture industry and corporate investors are championing this recent development in food biotechnology. They propose that this “invention” will yield ecological benefits, such as preserving wild salmon, while enhancing efficiency. The biotechnology sector is excited, as the unprecedented approval of genetically modified animal species for human consumption opens the door for the food industry into this realm of production. While genetically engineered plants have been readily produced and consumed in the United States, animals represent the next great market leap.

The story of genetically modified salmon is bound to the commodification of food, the intensification of seafood production, the overexploitation of fish stocks, and so-called technological solutions to address environmental problems. Unfortunately, the discussion of fisheries and oceans is constrained by ideological justifications that prevent a comprehensive assessment. For example, the depletion of fisheries is often referred to as a tragedy of the commons, where too many selfish fishers are chasing too few fish. Private property and technology are generally presented as solutions that will save fisheries and feed the world’s growing population. This argument has been used to justify subsequent conservation and management policies in fisheries. We contend that it is an inadequate explanation for the decline in fish populations and that its solutions are misdirected and problematic. As a counter, we propose that the tragedy of the commodity serves as a more appropriate explanation for the sweeping changes in oceans, fisheries, and recent efforts to introduce genetically modified salmon. This alternative approach presents how the logic of capital has shaped production and commodification processes. It also highlights how the most recent case of biotechnology in relation to salmon serves the needs of capital by increasing control of biological and ecological systems in order to better conform to economic dictates. The genetic modification of salmon is part of a biological speedup, whereby natural processes are transformed to achieve faster rates of return in the food marketplace.

Fisheries and Tragedies

Like terrestrial ecosystems, marine ecosystems have come under increasing anthropogenic pressure. Recently, a team of scientists concluded that no area of the world ocean “is unaffected by human influence.”3 The majority of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. It is estimated “that the global ocean has lost more than 90% of large predatory fishes” since the pre-industrial level.4 Scientists have concluded that fisheries and their associated ecosystems are being threatened on a scale unparalleled in human history.

Oceans and other aquatic ecosystems have provided essential ecological services and have been a source of food for humans for millennia. Archeological evidence suggests that coastal human societies, including prehistoric civilizations, affected the size and makeup of marine populations, yet did not generally exploit them to the degree that could threaten fish populations with collapse.5 This situation changed with the rise of the capitalist system. The scale and pace of human impacts on marine species increased during the sixteenth century with colonial expansion. It greatly accelerated following the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, with the development of new systems of mass transportation, such as railways, as well as other technologies, in particular the steam engine and refrigeration, which allowed for considerable expansion of fish production and consumption. Steam engines in boats permitted fishers to enlarge the range of their harvest at sea. Refrigeration allowed for larger quantities of fish to be captured, while boats could stay at sea longer without loss due to spoilage. Railways extended the seafood market, as inland populations gained access to fisheries products.6

While modern industrialized fishing efforts first emerged in the nineteenth century, the post-Second World War period marked a dramatic rise in marine catches that threatened the biodiversity and well-being of ocean systems on a global scale.7 Following the war, the amount of capital and energy invested in fishing operations continued to swell. Advanced fishing technologies and techniques rapidly increased the intensity and capacity of fishing operations. Global captures increased more than four-fold between 1950 and 2000, from almost 20 million tons to about 90 million tons. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the global fishing effort expanded at a rate faster than that of human population growth.8

Massive ships, employing state-of-the-art location technology, typify modern fishing operations. Industrial fishing operations use three main types of fishing technologies: trawlers, longlines, and purse seines. Factory trawlers deploy massive nets that are either pulled through the open sea like a large parachute or dragged across the ocean floor, sometimes thousands of feet below the surface. This practice stirs up ground fish and crustaceans, which are valuable target species, while causing much habitat destruction. Longlines make use of a string of baited hooks that hang from a main line, which can stretch for miles. The largest industrial longlines can contain thousands of baited hooks. This practice is often used in commercial fishing operations targeting pelagic species such as tuna, halibut, and swordfish. Purse seines make use of massive nets that are used to encircle schools of aggregating species like tuna. These nets can have a circumference of over a mile and can harvest many tons of fish in a single haul. In addition to target species, bycatch (unintentionally harvested fish that are unwanted, illegal to catch, or lack a market) are inevitably captured, particularly by the large-scale fishing techniques described above. These unintentionally captured species not only include other fish, but marine mammals, such as dolphins, and birds. Approximately one-third of all species captured in fishing operations in the United States are killed and discarded as bycatch.9 The use of advanced location technologies—such as sonar—has made these capture systems even more lethal.

Throughout the twentieth century, overfishing practices prompted international efforts to manage fisheries to mitigate the consequent impacts on marine and social systems. Management strategies, such as maximum sustainable yield, which became firmly established in the 1950s, and maximum economic yield, sought to determine specific levels of harvesting that would not undermine long-term fish production. In other words, calculations were made to estimate what was the maximum amount of fish that could be captured, without harming the reproductive capacity of a specific fish stock. Given the dominance of the logic of capital, these management approaches prioritized economic interests, emphasizing the use of market incentives and private property, such as rights to fish, as mechanisms to achieve desired goals. These management methods have come under extensive criticism, particularly when stocks—such as the cod in the Newfoundland fishery—collapse even after they have been closely managed.10 Nevertheless, they continue to serve as the basis for contemporary management strategies.

Despite these management strategies, the increasing fishing capacity and technology associated with capturing marine species has devastated many marine stocks and ecosystems, particularly species higher in the food web, such as salmon and tuna. Thus, there have been efforts to better understand and explain why this is occurring, and what can and should be done about it. The most pervasive explanation for fisheries depletion or collapse is the “tragedy of the commons” thesis developed by ecologist Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s. In brief, Hardin asserts that the combination of overpopulation and greedy individuals will eventually destroy all resources that are held in common, such as fisheries. That is, the individual propensity toward self-interest will exploit common-pool resources without regard of the potential social or ecological impacts. According to Hardin, “freedom in common brings ruin to all.”11

He contended that there are two ways to prevent these tragedies from occurring. Either top-down state control of common property resources—in fisheries, for example, instituting and enforcing fishing seasons and management programs such as quotas—or the commons must be enclosed through private ownership, which would limit access and promote protection of the resources. Hardin generally endorsed the latter approach, especially privatization. In his famous treatise, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Hardin extended his discussion of the commons and what he saw as associated concerns, overpopulation, hunger, and poverty. He explained, “under a system of private property, the men who own property recognize their responsibility to care for it, for if they don’t they will eventually suffer.”12

Hardin’s thesis has generated much debate over the last several decades. It is hailed by many, and criticized by some. We contend that Hardin and those associated with his argument focus on the wrong aspect of social organization—the commons—as the locus of the problem. Furthermore, his argument lacks necessary historical insight and social context. We argue that capitalist commodity production is an essential institutional force that has contributed to the massive depletion of ecological resources—such as fish stock—on a global scale. Rather than a tragedy of the commons, it is the tragedy of the commodity that needs to be assessed. It is necessary to scrutinize the system of production and its underlying logic in order to better understand the roots of the oceanic crisis.

Global marine fisheries, once thought to be infinite, clearly indicate the onset of a crisis. Many fisheries scientists, including Daniel Pauly, contend that several fish populations are being harvested at a faster rate than they can reproduce.13 While overall fishing effort has been steadily increasing, the cumulative yields of all species in large marine ecosystems have been in decline since the 1980s.14 Marine species are stressed primarily due to anthropogenic activities such as overexploitation of stocks and habitat loss due to environmental degradation. Fisheries scientist Boris Worm and his colleagues predict that if trends of increasing pressure and loss of biodiversity in marine ecosystems continue unchanged, the collapse of all taxa that are currently fished could occur by the middle of the twenty-first century.15 Such changes have not been frequent occurrences in human history until very recently. The collapse of marine fisheries points to systematic changes in the ways that social systems interact with marine ecosystems.16

In the development of our analysis, we use Marx’s famous aphorism on tragedy and farce as a guiding thread. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx states, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”17 Thus, we suggest that the initial “tragedy” of resource depletion associated with capitalist commodity production can often return as the “farce” of market or technological solutions in an attempt to address the various problems that have emerged. Indeed, environmental organizations and the policy establishment are quick to promote privatization of resources—i.e., market solutions—and technological fixes for addressing environmental problems or tragedies. In contrast, the tragedy of the commodity approach requires that we “lift the veil” that conceals the social relations of capitalist commodity production that contribute to environmental degradation. In doing so, we illuminate the elementary logic and social dynamics that have largely shaped human interactions with ecosystems in the era of modern capitalism. This approach highlights the social context and developments that contribute to overfishing, the shift to aquaculture, and eventually the introduction of the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption, the AquAdvantage Salmon.

A Brief History of Salmon Decline: From Open Waters to Aquaculture Pens

Populations of Pacific wild salmon are a small fraction of their historic size in every region except Alaska. Salmon decline began in the late 1800s and continued throughout the 1900s. At the end of the twentieth century, Pacific salmon were listed as endangered or threatened in thirty-four areas along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. Their population levels are considered to be stable in only 16 percent of this region of the Pacific Northwest.18 The historic decline of salmon is linked to the rise of the fish as a prized global commodity, new fishing techniques, the open access market, and the construction of dams to supply cheap hydroelectric power for industrial growth and irrigation-intensive agriculture.19 This tragic loss of biodiversity contributed to various technological solutions, such as hatcheries and eventually aquaculture, in order to try to maintain production of salmon for market.

Prior to capitalist fishing operations, salmon were primarily captured to meet local and regional needs. This situation within the Pacific Northwest dramatically changed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as canneries established operations to harvest salmon simply for profit. While initially using similar technologies to those employed by indigenous peoples, such as fish traps that consisted of channels constructed in rivers, streams, and tidal zones in order to direct salmon to holding pens, capitalist operations extended the location of traps to maximize the catch. For hundreds of years, prior to the establishment of canneries, indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest employed sociocultural restrictions that helped sustain the salmon population. In contrast, capitalist operations recognized no constraints. Production was organized to facilitate the accumulation of capital as quickly as possible, resulting in added pressures on fish stocks. The use of steel cans within the cannery became widespread, vastly expanding the global trade of this commodity. To demonstrate the tremendous growth in the Pacific Northwest’s first great industry, consider that the number of canneries on the Columbia River grew from eight to thirty-nine in the latter part of the nineteenth century.20 Correspondingly, the export of salmon out of the Columbia River region increased significantly, from around 200,000 cans of salmon in 1866 to almost 30 million cans of salmon by 1883. Most of these were exported to England, Australia, and Central America.21

Around the turn of the twentieth century, canneries began to rely on the fish wheel, a device that scooped migrating salmon out of the river current and into a wire net. Brutally efficient, the fish wheel could catch an average of 20,000 pounds of salmon a day.22 The salmon industry also used boats to set extensive gillnets in the ocean and near the mouths of migratory rivers. When salmon swim into these vertical nets, only part of their bodies pass through the mesh. The nylon mesh slips behind the gills and entangles the salmon. Both fish wheels and gillnets can be used in an ecologically sensible manner as they are effective in harvesting only target species, particularly in the salmon fishery. However, the expansion of fishing technology proceeded with minimal regulation or oversight, and was driven by the necessity to expand. Given the context of an open-access fishery under an economic system predicated on constant growth, these fishing techniques were employed to maximize harvests and served to continue the decline of wild salmon. Reflecting on these intensive fishing practices, Robert Lackey, who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, explains, “by 1900 many stocks were reduced below levels required to ensure reproductive success, let alone support fishing; some probably were extirpated.”23

Habitat loss and degradation due to the construction of dams further exacerbated the decline in the salmon population. In the late 1930s, hydropower became the primary instrument of economic development in the West. Construction of dams continued through the 1970s, resulting in 274 hydropower dams, as well as an additional 200 dams that are used for other purposes, such as flood control, in the Columbia River Basin.24 These dams prevented the passage of both returning adult spawners and outmigrating juveniles, blocking an estimated one-third of salmon habitat.25

To allow for industrial growth and commercial salmon fishing, hatcheries were developed so salmon would no longer need to spawn in the wild. Fish managers stripped the eggs and milt (sperm) from salmon broodstock, mixed the genetic material, and raised the fertilized eggs in controlled containers. The goal of hatchery enhancement was to supplement wild populations to increase the number of salmon that could be captured for sale on the market. The rationalized hatchery policies focused on increasing production of a single species, independent of its habitat and evolutionary requirements, which masked the decline in the population of wild salmon. Today, there are more than 100 hatcheries releasing salmon into the Columbia River, and over 500 salmon hatcheries exist in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia.26 As a consequence, salmon of hatchery origin are now dominant in most watersheds of the Northwest. There are a host of unintended consequences, including narrowing the biodiversity of salmon in the Northwest and weakening the genetic pool of wild salmon.

Commercial fisheries continued to prosper throughout the twentieth century, even in the midst of the tragic decline of the wild salmon population. Hatcheries helped maintain high harvest rates, which unwittingly caused a further decline in the population, as exploitation rates reached 88 percent of the fishery stock—too high to sustain wild salmon.27 Although much of their life cycle is controlled, hatchery-raised salmon still rely on migratory rivers that lead to the ocean and thus are still dependent on ecological cycles. As such, they cannot be entirely folded into year-round, highly controlled, global food markets. In an effort to overcome this “obstacle,” intensive salmon aquaculture operations were introduced.

The problems associated with marine fisheries contributed to the development of new techniques to produce seafood for mass consumption. A major effort was made to create controlled-rearing operations for fish, which are similar to land-based agricultural systems. Fish farms, or aquaculture, have increased production over the last several decades at an enormous rate. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing form of food production in the world. Only 5 percent of the fish consumed by humans came from aquaculture in 1960. By 2012, about half of all fish consumed was raised on farms.28 Salmon farming, in particular, is one of the most profitable forms of aquaculture. From 1985 to 2010, the amount of farmed salmon produced increased from approximately 500,000 tons to 2.5 million tons, valued at almost $9 billion.29

Modern industrial salmon aquaculture expanded as a system of production during the early 1980s. Its emergence marks a significant change from historic, wild capture fisheries, which were characterized by independent boat owners and operators harvesting fish from the oceans. In contrast to wild salmon, farmed salmon—which are raised in aquaculture pens—are not dependent on natural cycles of migration, reproduction, and development. In industry terms, they are owned “from egg to plate,” and their entire life cycle is managed in captive environments. Under these conditions, capitalist enterprises obtain control, conformity, and predictability, eliminating many of the vagaries of inconsistency, variety, and seasonality that are associated with fishing wild salmon. They are able to increase the scale and speed of salmon production. The net pens range from approximately thirty to one hundred feet across and are about thirty feet deep. Together the pens are approximately the size of four football fields and can hold from 500,000 to 750,000 salmon on average. The salmon are fed manufactured pellets—via mechanized feed machines on regular intervals—that contain fishmeal, fish oil, and other supplements such as wheat by-products, soybean, and feather meal. Raising fish in captive pens resulted in a production speedup. The salmon industry no longer had to wait to harvest the fish during their annual migration; rather, aquaculture investors could now grow fish year round in contained pens and harvest at will throughout the year.

The social and ecological contradictions of the aquaculture production process were apparent from the very beginning. Penned salmon create concentrated waste that pollutes marine ecosystems surrounding these sites, require protein-intensive diets at the expense of other marine fisheries, involve the use of antibiotics to try to reduce the spread of disease associated with the conditions of production, and frequently escape as invasive species. In regard to feed, almost five kilograms of wild fish are required to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon. Rather than lessening demands on ocean resources, intensive salmon aquaculture increased pressure on wild fish stocks.30 Aquaculture production processes also displace traditional labor practices, lead to deskilling as mechanization takes priority, and diminish traditional subsistence users’ access to the fishery. Mergers and acquisitions now characterize this global industry. Ownership is often under the control of a handful of aqua-business corporations.31 In North America, the five largest firms produce about 95 percent of the volume.32

The accomplishments of farmed salmon practices allow for greater rates of production and return on investments based on the sale of salmon as commodities in year-round, global markets. Aquaculture still relies, however, on the basic metabolic growth functions of natural species, which is often seen as “inefficient” for increasing the rate of return on profit. To overcome this constraint, firms have turned to biotechnology to alter the growth rates of salmon.

The Political Economy of Genetically Modified Salmon

AquAdvantage Salmon, a fish with transgenic characteristics, is a faster growing salmon. As with all technological developments, this genetic invention did not develop in a social vacuum. Before offering a critique, it is important to understand the political-economic context in which the genetically modified salmon arose and its relationship to the commodification process.

Initial research and development of genetically modified salmon began in 1989 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, outside of the private sector and under the guise of public research. Canadian researchers at this university derived the founder animal from which the AquAdvantage line was created by injecting the transgene (Chinook plus ocean pout) into fertilized eggs of wild Atlantic salmon. By 1992, AquAdvantage Salmon was established from the offspring of the first generation of engineered salmon. This invention quickly moved from a public institution to a private firm, which conforms to the pattern of commodification of university research products. Biologists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin explain that “the commoditization of university science results from the financial needs of the universities.”33 They point out that university scientists are considered investments in multiple ways, one of which is “for sharing in the patents of inventions made by university faculty.”34

In the 1990s, Canadian policies directed towards university research and biotechnology resulted in “substantive federal investments made to enhance capacity building at universities and develop networks to integrate academic research with industry priorities to commercialize new inventions.”35 In the case of genetically modified salmon, in 1996 a U.S. company then known as A/F Protein acquired the license to the genetic technology from Memorial University of Newfoundland. The firm, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, was subsequently reorganized in 2000 into AquaBounty Farms, which maintained the AquAdvantage technology. Three years later, the company submitted to the FDA its first regulatory study. In 2004, AquaBounty Farms changed its name to AquaBounty Technologies.

The application to the FDA is a significant step because it points to the lack of a coherent regulatory plan for managing the unique circumstances and potential risks posed by producing transgenic fish. In place of comprehensive policy development, in the United States transgenic animals are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act known as NADA—New Animal Drug Application.36 As a result, the first transgenic animal intended for human consumption is being evaluated, not as a new food product, but as a veterinary drug. Critics argue that the FDA and Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee do not have the expertise, authority, or institutional will to assess the potential environmental and social concerns associated with transgenic fish.

In anticipation of growth upon regulatory approval, AquaBounty Technologies was listed in 2006 on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market, raising $30 million in an initial public offering of stock. With this inflow of capital, the firm began expanding operations. While waiting for the completion of the approval process, AquaBounty Technologies began construction of a land-based aquaculture grow-out facility in the highlands of Panama for the purpose of conducting trials of AquAdvantage Salmon.

In 1980, in the United States, the Supreme Court decision in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty paved the way for the ownership of living organisms altered by human technology when it ruled that a bacterium produced to break down crude oil could be patented. In the same year, the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act permitted universities to patent innovations produced with federal funding. As a result of these legal dictates and ongoing efforts to commercialize public-sector research and inventions, there has been “a proliferation of patenting by both private- and public-sector institutions” in plant biotechnology.37 Between 1980 and 1991, in the United States, the number of patents granted in plant biotechnology went from zero per year to surpassing 100 per year. The patents continued to increase each year. In 2000, over 700 patents were granted.38

Increasingly, public-sector inventions are licensed to private companies, which then control exclusive rights to commercial production.39 Through consolidation and concentration of ownership, a few major companies own and control a disproportionately large amount of plant biotechnology. Geneticist Pam Ronald and organic farming activist Raoul Adamchak explain that:

The private sector is becoming greatly centralized through mergers and acquisitions into a global oligopoly dominated by five firms that are also major marketers of pesticides (Monsanto, Dupont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF). These mergers were made in part to accumulate the intellectual property (patented technologies and genes) portfolios necessary to produce GE [genetically engineered] crops and in part to gain control over a new technology. What this means is that the private companies now have even more control over who uses the technology of genetic engineering.40

At the policy level, the FDA application for AquAdvantage Salmon continued to move through the regulatory process unhindered, even if under a growing critique from environmental activists, scientists, and fishing people. By 2010, the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, which reviews all NADA applications, concluded that the genetically engineered fish was safe to eat and posed no threat to the environment. In 2012, the FDA released its draft Environmental Assessment with a preliminary “finding of no significant impact.” Critics suggested that this finding was premature and did not allow for consideration of the full range of ecological and social risks. Anne Kapuscinski, a professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth, conducted an independent ecological risk assessment of AquAdvantage Salmon. She sent her evaluation to the FDA, indicating that the Environmental Assessment of the agency did not adequately consider the growing body of research on genetic and ecological risks of transgenic fish.41 She recommends a broader definition for “safety” analysis, such as applying the precautionary principle, in which salmon are not simply treated as a commodity, but rather an integral link in human and natural communities.

The public was allowed 120 days to comment on the Environmental Assessment. Over 1.8 million people vehemently opposed the FDA’s favorable review of AquAdvantage Salmon, with comments coming from a variety of individuals concerned about the potential impacts to marine ecology, commercial fishing communities, public health, indigenous rights, and intellectual property rights. In addition, twelve Senators and twenty-one Representatives of the U.S. Congress sent letters to the FDA urging them to halt its approval until regulatory, economic, and environmental concerns are addressed. Despite this harsh outcry from the public, it is expected that AquAdvantage Salmon will soon be approved. The company has already begun producing eggs at AquaBounty Canada’s hatchery for commercial sale.

AquaBounty Technologies has actively attempted to frame the discussion of their genetically modified salmon for the general public. According to industry materials, AquAdvantage Salmon technology “will permit the use of alternative production systems which have substantial environmental and fish health benefits which are not economical for conventional Atlantic salmon.”42 A main criticism of conventional salmon aquaculture is that it takes a significant amount of fishmeal and fish oil to grow the carnivorous species. Thus, AquaBounty presents their captive production of genetically modified salmon as a solution to the problems associated with existing aquaculture. With faster growing transgenic salmon, the assumption is that less fishmeal and fish oil will be required, which will therefore reduce the impact on ocean fisheries and the environmental footprint in general.43 Additionally, AquaBounty claims that all salmon will be raised in inland, closed containment tanks, reducing the risk of escape and preventing waste from entering the marine system.44 The company also indicates that the new invention will yield social benefits. For instance, they propose that their genetically modified salmon “can be produced in the U.S. in an environmentally sustainable manner, creating American jobs and reducing imports while ensuring traceability, food safety and security.”45

Each of these claims requires further reflection. It is important to consider the general tendencies of the capitalist system, especially in regard to how increased efficiency relates to an overall increase in material throughput. Capitalist commodity production has created a historically unique set of social and institutional relationships. The production of commodities in a capitalist system is organized according to a particular logic that, unlike systems of production that preceded it, has at its basis the production and realization of surplus value—profits. In what follows, we briefly discuss the dynamics that this operational principle unleashes, and its importance for further understanding the social and technological processes that have been central to the efforts to produce and bring to market the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption.

Tragedy of the Commodity

Marx’s point of departure in the first volume of Capital was an analysis of the commodity. It was in the production of commodities that the logic and aim of capitalist production could be appropriately and effectively understood. A similar approach is necessary to understand the historical development of salmon production, including recent developments associated with AquAdvantage Salmon. Therefore, Marx’s framework regarding the fundamentals of capitalist commodity production will be briefly outlined. In particular, the general formula for capital, the production of relative surplus value, and the circuit of capital will be addressed. The larger political-economic context reveals the motive and logic of salmon production and the development of genetically modified salmon in a manner that challenges much of the conventional wisdom regarding its social and ecological benefits and costs.

The capitalist system is a grow-or-die system, directed toward amassing ever-more capital. Capitalist commodity production transforms value, as it operates to expand exchange value—a purely quantitative element, which derives its meaning only from its exponential increase. Qualitative social relationships, including those associated with the larger biophysical world, are not part of the capitalist system of accounting. Marx explained this situation in his general formula for capital—M-C-M. Money capital, M, is transformed into C, a commodity (via production), which then has to be sold for more money, realizing the original value plus an added or surplus value, distinguishing M (or M + Δm, which is surplus value). In the next period of production M is reinvested with the aim of obtaining M′′, and so on. Economist Robert Heilbroner explained that capital is understood as the “continuous transformation of capital-as-money into capital-as-commodities, followed by a retransformation of capital-as-commodities into capital-as-more-money.”46 This quantitative increase of exchange value is “the absolute law of this mode of production.”47 This endless cycle provides capitalist production with the formidable growth dynamic that is often celebrated by mainstream economists and policy makers. Yet, this same dynamic, or capitalist growth imperative, where “the movement of capital is therefore limitless,” produces an array of social and ecological contradictions, which we will address later.48

The ability of capital to extract surplus value through commodity production is made possible through the exploitation of human labor and the free appropriation of nature. In other words, capital does not pay the true costs of production. Marx explained, “the purchase of labour-power is a contract of sale which determines that a greater quantity of labour is provided than is necessary to replace the price of the labour-power, the wage.”49 The veil of commodity production hides the fact that labor and nature provide the basis of value, preventing a systemic assessment of the social relations driving environmental degradation.

The growth imperative of capital, and the generalized system of commodity production, has generated a series of tragedies. The system’s exploitative character contributes to environmental degradation, depletion of resources, and community disruption. Capitalist development and the production of salmon as a commodity to realize surplus value transformed the social relationships and the conditions that supported salmon populations. Intensive-fishing operations tried to maximize the salmon harvest that could be sold on the global market, contributing to the decline in the fish population. The construction of dams to supply electricity to expanding industries and water to large-scale agricultural operations blocked access to spawning grounds and destroyed salmon habitat. Together these changes resulted in the initial tragedy of the commodity, as fish were harvested at a faster rate than they could reproduce, the conditions necessary to support the salmon population were being destroyed, and the subsistence fishing communities were undermined. The tragedy of the commodity does not end here. It was followed by the farce of technological solutions, with the promise of conservation and environmentally sustainable practices that were profitable.

As salmon become a valuable global commodity, the depletion of wild salmon could not stand in the way of expanding capital. Hatcheries were employed to increase the number of salmon that could be harvested. Nevertheless, overfishing continued to threaten the salmon population. Industrial aquaculture provided capital with even greater possibilities for growth, as the species came completely under the control of the producer “from egg to plate.” Salmon production followed the lead of industrial capitalist agriculture, which produced large-scale, single-crop, input-intensive commodities for the global market. The capitalist system is geared to the production of items and services, commodities in general, that will realize exchange value and expand capital in the most efficient and lucrative manner.

As a result, within the system of generalized commodity production, there is a drive toward transforming production to extract greater and greater surplus value. Marx argued that there are essentially two mechanisms to accomplish this during production, which he called absolute and relative surplus value. Both of these mechanisms alter production systems in order to increase the efficiency and productivity of labor. In an absolute sense, the working day can be prolonged, while keeping wages constant. In a relative sense, which is more common in the modern industrial capitalist system, increased value is extracted by the “surplus-value which arises from the curtailment of the necessary labour-time, and from the corresponding alteration in the respective lengths ofthe working day.”50 To accomplish this increase in relative surplus value, “the labour process itself, must be revolutionized. By an increase in the productivity of labour, we mean an alteration in the labour process of such a kind as to shorten the labour-time socially necessary for the production of a commodity.”51 Technological innovations are employed in production to further the extraction of surplus value and therefore the exploitation of nature and labor.

The controlled rearing of marine species, that have been developed in order to expand the production of high-value commodities for global markets, particularly in the global North, has focused on developing more “efficient” systems of production. In other words, the relative ratio of inputs—including raw materials, energy, and human labor—is reduced in relation to output. Generally, this is the trend that is occurring in salmon aquaculture. Often, this trend is uncritically considered as an indication of the dematerialization of production, as well as the advancement of a more ecologically sustainable system of production within capitalism.

The farce is evident in recent events associated with salmon aquaculture. New methods of production are pursued to further the growth of capital. Part of these efforts involves gearing the life cycle of salmon to economic cycles of exchange. Marx explained that the “the production time of the capital advanced consists of two periods: a period in which the capital exists in the labour process, and second period in which its form of existence—that of an unfinished product—is handed over to the sway of natural processes, without being involved in the labour process.”52 Capital attempts to shorten the time associated with natural processes through the use of technologies, such as “the introduction of chemical in place of open-air bleaching, and more effective drying apparatus in the drying process.”53 During Marx’s time, selective breeding was used to increase the productivity of capital in agriculture and food production. Marx understood that, “It is impossible, of course, to deliver a five-year-old animal before the end of five years. But what is possible within certain limits is to prepare animals for their fate more quickly by new modes of treatment.”54 Thus, technological innovations are influential in transforming the production of plants and animals, so as to decrease production time. Capitalist production is directed toward speeding up production, in order to increase relative surplus value and decrease the turnover time of capital. So long as money is tied up in production or in its commodity form, money capital (along with the newly infused surplus value) is not accessible for further deployment to expand production and growth. Therefore, when turnover time is increased, there are higher capital investments—even if the periodic outlays are the same—since it takes longer to be renewed. In this situation capital is less efficient at realizing surplus value, which slows the rate of capital accumulation. Thus, there is a tendency towards speeding up production—even when the processes require necessary interactions with natural systems—and realization of investment capital.

The biological speedup is nothing new; however, the method by which this is pursued takes new forms, given changes in technological capability. Therefore it is not surprising that capital has sought to use genetic engineering to speedup the production process of salmon. The ultimate aim is to increase the productivity of capital, both through increases in relative surplus value and decreases in turnover time. Salmon aquaculture allowed capital to control the whole process, from “egg to plate.” The circulation of capital is still interrupted, however, while waiting for salmon to grow. The AquaAdvantage Salmon is another step to decrease production time, given that the genetic modifications produce a fish that grows twice as quickly, and can be ready for the market in eighteen months, instead of three years. Here lies the true pursuit of developing genetically modified salmon for human consumption. The proposed environmental benefits are questionable, given the general operation of the capitalist system.

While it is too early to identify specifically the full range of environmental relationships, it is worthwhile to consider the larger ecological complex. The energy-intensive nature of producing genetically modified fish in captivity presents an under-recognized ecological concern. According to AquaBounty’s application to the FDA, the genetically modified salmon will be bred and hatched at an enclosed facility on Prince Edward Island on the east coast of Canada.55 The juvenile fish will then be transported to an inland facility in Panama to mature. Once the transgenic salmon have reached market size, they will be harvested and shipped to the United States for sale on the market. The transportation from Canada to Panama and then to the United States clearly involves fossil-fuel intensive transportation within the overall production scheme.56 Additionally, the inland containment pools that will be used to raise these salmon will require constant water circulation, climate control, and routine cleaning, all increasing the energy requirements associated with each step in these operations. Industry’s claim of a smaller ecological footprint seems less likely when the full ecological costs of the production process are included.

Another proposed ecological benefit is that AquaAdvantage Salmon will require fewer inputs, compared to contemporary salmon aquaculture. It is then suggested that the more efficient metabolic rate of transgenic salmon means fewer natural resources will be needed for growth, reducing the overall demands on the world’s oceans. The problem with this assumption is that it fails to consider, as the Jevons Paradox suggests, that gains made in efficiency do not necessarily lead to lower environmental pressures or resource demands, given the growth imperative of capitalism.57 In a competitive market economy organized by capitalist social relations, efficiency gains are often used to expand the scale of the system—such as increasing the quantity of commodities produced within a particular operation or through investment in other sectors of the productive economy—and tend to lead to an overall increase in resource demands. While aquaculture may become more economically efficient at producing individual commodities, expansion in total production—which involves decreasing the production time, so more fish can be grown within a specific amount of time—may actually increase the overall resource demands of the operation.

For example, fish consumption has increased around the world. From 1980 to 2010, farmed salmon consumption grew over two hundred fold.58 This dramatic rise in consumption is, in part, due to competitive pricing owed to the overall expansion of salmon farming and the amount of salmon produced. A more efficient method of salmon production is aimed at pushing consumption of this fish even higher. The same is true in the case of developing genetically modified salmon. Thus, the claims of decreasing ecological demands are certainly suspect. In fact, it seems that such claims represent a new round of greenwashing by the industry. A more forthright analysis of the motivation to produce a faster growing salmon is actually offered in a fact sheet released by the industry: “faster growth and greater efficiency mean a more efficient use of capital, reduced feed costs, and less time to market.”59 A more efficient use of capital is an obvious boon to aqua-business, which expands relative surplus value and fuels further economic growth. In actual circumstances, it does nothing to challenge the underlying forces that are driving the decline in fish stock.

Levins and Lewontin provide an important insight in regard to the relationship between commodities, profit, and human needs:

Commodities will be produced, for example, only for those who can afford them, and priority will be given to the production of those commodities with the highest profit margins. Productive innovations which make commodities easier and cheaper to make may create unemployment or ill health for workers and consumers. Thus the process of supplying human needs by the creation of commodities whose exchange value is paramount actually creates new hardship.60

Expanding profit is the primary goal of capitalist enterprise. The speedup of biological processes, in this case the growth rate of AquaAdvantage Salmon, is pursued chiefly to increase profit margins. Environmental and social sustainability are a farce, in this grand tragedy of the commodity.


The development of genetically engineered salmon represents how science itself is commoditized, distorting the possible benefits that could arise from scientific knowledge. Levins and Lewontin explain that “as working scientists, we see the commoditization of science as the prime cause of the alienation of most scientists from the products of their labor. It stands between the powerful insights of science and corresponding advances in human welfare, often producing results that contradict stated purposes.”61 The proposed social and ecological benefits of genetically modified salmon need a critical evaluation, rooted in a systematic analysis of the capitalist system. Science and technology certainly have much to offer for enhancing the well-being of humans and improving planetary conditions, especially when situated in a context that allows for scientists to thrive. It is important to recognize “that the way science is is not how it has to be, that its present structure is not imposed by nature but by capitalism, and that it is not necessary to emulate this system of doing science.”62

The modern history of salmon is intricately tied to capitalist development. The logic of capital has influenced the commodification of this species and shaped the conditions of its existence. In contrast to the tragedy of the commons, which is widely used to explain the collapse of global fisheries, we propose that the tragedy of the commodity framework provides a more adequate approach to understand the historical decline of wild salmon populations and the subsequent technological solutions to maintain fish production, including the development of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption. The constant is the commodification of salmon in order to further the accumulation of capital. This long process has resulted in the privatization of commons, concentration of ownership, loss of subsistence livelihoods, exploitation of natural resources, and disintegration of local knowledge. The application of biotechnology to fish production is simply part of an ongoing attempt to speedup the growth process to get salmon to market faster in order to enhance capital accumulation. Thus, claims that this latest technological fix will address the many tragedies associated with capitalist commodification are dubious. In truth, overcoming the tragedy of the commodity requires a new social-economic order that fundamentally transforms human relations with the larger biophysical world.


  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Genetically Engineered Salmon,” updated June 10, 2014,
  2. Bryan Walsh, “Faster Growing Salmon,” Time, November 11, 2011,
  3. Benjamin S. Halpern, et al., “A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems,” Science 319 (2008): 948–52.
  4. Ransom A. Meyers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature 423 (2003): 280–83; Jennie M. Harrington, Ransom A. Myers, and Andrew A. Rosenberg, “Wasted Fishery Resources,” Fish & Fisheries 6, no. 4 (2005): 350–61.
  5. Jon M. Erlandson, et. al., “Human Impacts on Ancient Shellfish: A 10,000 Year Record from San Miguel Island, California,” Journal of Archaeological Science 35, no. 8 (2008): 2144–52; Jon M. Erlandson, Torben C. Rick, and Todd J. Braje, “Fishing up the Food Web?: 12,000 Years of Maritime Subsistence and Adaptive Adjustments on California’s Channel Islands 1,” Pacific Science 63, no. 4 (2009): 711–24; Ann Gibbons, “Coastal Artifacts Suggest Early Beginnings for Modern Behavior,” Science 318, no. 5849 (2007): 377; Jeremy B. C. Jackson, et. al., “Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems,” Science 293, no. 5530 (2001): 629–38; Sue O’Connor, Rintaro Ono, and Chris Clarkson, “Pelagic Fishing at 42,000 Years before the Present and the Maritime Skills of Modern Humans,” Science 334, no. 6059 (2011): 1117–21.
  6. Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark, “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology: An Analysis of the Oceanic Crisis within Capitalist Production,” Organization & Environment 18, no. 4 (2005): 422–44; Stefano B. Longo and Brett Clark, “The Commodification of Bluefin Tuna: The Historical Transformation of the Mediterranean Fishery,” Journal of Agrarian Change 12, no. 2–3 (2012): 204–26.
  7. Todd J. Braje, Torben C. Rick, and Jon M. Erlandson, “A Trans-Holocene Historical Ecological Record of Shellfish Harvesting on California’s Northern Channel Islands,” Quaternary International 264 (2012): 109–20; Callum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007).
  8. UNFAO, State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012 (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012),
  9. Harrington, Myers, and Rosenberg, “Wasted Fishery Resources.”
  10. Dean Bavington, Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010).
  11. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968): 1243–48.
  12. Garret Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today 8 (1974): 38–43.
  13. Daniel Pauly, “Beyond Duplicity and Ignorance in Global Fisheries,” Scientia Marina 73, no. 2 (2009): 217.
  14. Daniel Pauly, et. al., “The Future for Fisheries,” Science 302, no. 5649 (2003): 1359–61; Boris Worm, et. al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314, no. 5800 (2006): 787–90.
  15. Worm et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services”; The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines fishing effort as the following: “The fishing effort is a measure of the amount of fishing. Frequently some surrogate is used relating to a given combination of inputs into the fishing activity, such as the number of hours or days spent fishing, numbers of hooks used (in long-line fishing), kilometres of nets used, etc.” See Review of Fisheries in OECD Countries: Glossary, February 1998,
  16. Pauly, “Beyond Duplicity.”
  17. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 15.
  18. National Research Council, Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996).
  19. Jim Lichatowich, Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999).
  20. David Arnold, The Fisherman’s Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 55–56.
  21. Ibid, 56.
  22. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997), 43.
  23. Robert T. Lackey, “Restoring Wild Salmon to the Pacific Northwest: Chasing an Illusion?” in Patricia Koss and Mike Katz, eds., What We Don’t Know about Pacific Northwest Fish Runs—An Inquiry into Decision-Making (Portland: Portland State University, 2000), 91–143,
  24. John Harrison, “Dams: History and Purpose,” October 31, 2008,
  25. Lackey, “Restoring Wild Salmon to the Pacific Northwest.”
  26. Lackey, “Restoring Wild Salmon to the Pacific Northwest.”
  27. Lichatowich, Salmon Without Rivers.
  28. Ibid.
  29. FishstatJ—Software for Fishery Statistical Time Series, FAO Fishery and Aquaculture Global Statistics (Rome, 2014).
  30. Albert G. J. Tacon and Marc Metian, “Global Overview on the Use of Fish Meal and Fish Oil in Industrially Compounded Aquafeeds: Trends and Future Prospects,” Aquaculture 285 (2008): 146–58. See also Rosamond L. Naylor, et. al., “Nature’s Subsidies to Shrimp and Salmon Farming,” Science 282 (1998): 883–84.
  31. Sarah K. Cox, Diminishing Returns: An Investigation into the Five Multinational Corporations that Control British Columbia’s Salmon Farming Industry, produced for the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (Victoria, BC: Raincoast Conversation Society, December 2004),; John Phyne and Jorge Mansilla, “Forging Linkages in the Commodity Chain: The Case of the Chilean Salmon Farming Industry, 1987–2001,” Sociologia Ruralis 43 (2003): 108–126; John Phyne, Gestur Hovgaard, and Gard Hansen, “Norwegian Salmon Goes to Market: The Case of the Austevoll Seafood Cluster,” Journal of Rural Studies 22 (2006): 190–204.
  32. Salmon Farming Industry Handbook 2013,
  33. Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 205.
  34. Ibid, 205.
  35. Richard Carew, “Science Policy and Agricultural Biotechnology in Canada,” Review of Agricultural Economics, 27, no. 3 (2005): 300–316.
  36. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “New Animal Drug Applications,”
  37. Gregory D. Graff, et. al., “The Public-Private Structure of Intellectual Property Ownership in Agricultural Biotechnology,” Nature Biotechnology 21, no. 9 (2003): 989.
  38. Ibid, 990.
  39. Richard Atkinson, et. al., “Public Sector Collaboration for Agricultural IP Management,” Science 301, no. 5630 (2003): 174–75.
  40. Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008): 147.
  41. Ari LeVaux, “A Risk Scientist Comments on AquaBounty Salmon,” March 11, 2013,
  42. See AquaBounty Technologies, “Our Technology,”
  43. See AquaBounty Technologies, “Frequently Asked Questions,”
  44. See AquaBounty Technologies, “Myths and Facts,”
  45. Ibid.
  46. Robert Heilbroner, The Nature and Logic of Capital (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), 36.
  47. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1976), 769.
  48. Ibid, 253.
  49. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 2 (London: Penguin, 1978), 113.
  50. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 432.
  51. Ibid, 431.
  52. Marx, Capital, vol. 2, 317.
  53. Ibid, 317.
  54. Ibid, 314.
  55. Jeffery Fox, “Transgenic Salmon Inches Toward Finish Line,” Nature Biotechnology 28 (2010): 1141–42.
  56. There are two rationales offered to explain the transport to Panama for grow-out phase. AquaBounty Technologies claims that raising the transgenic fish in a country with warmer waters will serve as part of their biological containment. If fish were to escape into waters off the coast of Panama, they would most likely not survive. A biotechnology analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, explains that moving operations to Panama is a strategy to skirt environmental laws in the United States regarding water pollution and animal husbandry. In addition, it is surmised that the salmon imports will be protected under international agreements that prevent barriers to trade.
  57. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, “Capitalism and the Curse of Efficiency: The Return of the Jevons Paradox,” Monthly Review 62, no. 6 (2010): 1–12.
  58. According to the UNFAO, in 1980 aquaculture produced an estimated 7,848 tons of salmon. In 2010, this increased to 1,577,019 tons.
  59. AquaBounty Technologies, “AquaBounty AquAdvantage Salmon,”
  60. Levins and Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, 285–86.
  61. Ibid, 208.
  62. Ibid.
2014, Volume 66, Issue 07 (December)
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