Aquaculture Magazine

August / September 2014

Be careful what you wish for

By Mike Picchietti

With the rise of the social media phenomenon and the growth of blogs, websites and chat rooms, anybody with an idea, a cause and time can gain an audience to express a point of view.

By Mike Picchietti*

I´m even making use of this right now in this article. This can be a good thing, to have a vehicle allowing these freedoms. However, along with these expressions of free speech, authors soon realize that it’s the negative that sells and the sensationalist headline-grabbing words that really attract attention. 

With regard to tilapia, we have noticed more and more attacks from health, nutrition, cooking, seafood and environmental blogs with stories titled “Eating Tilapia Worse than Eating Bacon and Donuts,” “Farmed Tilapia Good for the Environment, Bad for You,” “Tilapia Eat Poop,” “Tilapia Raised on Feces Hits U.S. Tables” and “Tilapia—The Genetically Modified Fish.” It goes on and on, simply Google the word tilapia and a high percentage of the hits are sensationally titled and negative. But does this really matter?

If we look at the tilapia industry overall (worldwide), it is growing at phenomenal rates. Two thirds of our world’s seafood consumption is expected to come from aquaculture within the next 30 years. Global tilapia production is expected to almost double from 4.3 million tons to 7.3 million tons a year between 2010 and 2030, according to a FAO Report. But, American and European tilapia farming represent less than 0.5% of the current global production, even though U.S. consumption is estimated at 8% of global tilapia production on a whole weight basis. For all the noise created about tilapia in the so-called West, it doesn’t seem to correctly correspond to those creating or even eating the product.

To consider perspective, much of this “yellow journalism” is coming from U.S. and EU internet sites, at times spilling over into mainstream media. Perhaps our culture, when it comes to food, is less diverse or versatile compared to most of the world, especially regarding seafood. Consider, slimy eel is a 300,000 MT/year industry hardly known in America. Seaweeds, sea urchins, fish head soup and even tilapia were little know foods until the 1990s. In America, the land of diversity, our seafood cuisine culture is still very narrow. Decisions are impacted by sophisticated interests of production, distribution and remanufacturing of the raw products. 

Nowadays, the media is also in the food business. In blogs and on TV, professional chefs, nutritionists and health care specialists are telling us what to eat, what not to eat, what is good and what is bad. One season chicken eggs are considered bad and the next year eggs are great for you. In the old days, you could just ask Mom; she and Grandma knew everything you needed to know about the foods we ate. Ironically, cancer rates, heart attacks and obesity rates were all lower in those days. For all the food experts and information, why are we so unhealthy? 

Nowadays, television and internet based media have replaced the mother and grandmother in many aspects of the American kitchen. Whereas in most other places of the world, the mother and grandmother run the kitchen, get the food and prepare it. If there’s a choice to be made, they make it. When you want “the story” on this carrot, chicken or fish, the moms will tell you. The focus now in wealthier countries is becoming more about why socially, politically or environmentally responsible people should buy one product versus another. The foods coming into wealthier kitchens are a result of massive competition and aggressive fighting for your purchasing decisions, including promises that your purchase can contribute to a better world, too. The very act of eating or buying food can be a political statement. If that pushes your buy button, vendors will promote it.

I think we’re all guilty to some degree of sensationalism when it comes to the products we produce versus our competition. I certainly was using guerilla marketing tactics when I was selling tilapia into the North American market. In the U.S. and EU, production of tilapia results in higher costs, compared to China—even Latin American costs are higher. These farmers have to get a higher price for their fish, therefore these sensationalist, negative stories that keep appearing about tilapia are to some degree created and perpetuated by other tilapia farmers. In effect, guerilla marketing techniques are used to attack your competition; this keeps the stories alive year after year. I am guilty, and I’m sure I’m not alone! Creating points of distinction can be difficult in intensive, commodity animal farming. There’s only so much you can do differently on a large scale while maintaining animal wellbeing and still earning a profit. 

In the last few years the homegrown organic movement has been supplying local weekend markets and giving individual families a lot of satisfaction. Aquaponics is growing every year in the U.S. but is still not even a single-digit share of the market. Many local aquaponic producers are quick to attack how badly 99.9% of tilapia (in the market) is produced compared to their products. However, what gets lost in the comparison are the many techniques that are forced to change when you scale to levels allowing entrance into these mainstream markets. It’s not the same to compare producers of a few hundred or even a few thousand fish against farms supplying millions to a demanding market. It doesn’t seem fair or logical that small production farms should dictate the image of tilapia yet be totally incapable of supplying the demand. Once producers cross over to commercial volumes, it becomes a different story. 

Scale is so often attacked because it’s the scale that lowers costs and prices dominating markets, making it harder for new or smaller producers to compete. Smaller producers, resource poorer producers and producers in climates that aren’t suitable for tilapia have higher costs so they have to charge more to compete. They therefore must pitch that they have a superior product. Attacking bigger companies’ successful product and market domination through their techniques is a common reaction in all competitive industries. But in achieving large scale production, one must suddenly adopt techniques that were formerly criticized. Such is life, we’re all guilty.

Let’s look at a few of the stories that keep circulating in the 


Tilapia eat poop

Many producers, distributors and vendors of tilapia have been questioned by consumers asking if tilapia eat poop. From what I’ve seen over the years, the usual response by vendors and buyers of the lower cost tilapia is to avoid the answer. Many believe America’s Tilapia Alliance (ATA) should provide an explanation, rebuttal or defense of this and other controversial aquaculture techniques. My one-liner is, “No, tilapia are not bottom, poop-eating feeders, they are mid-level filter feeders of algae, while it’s shrimp and other shellfish like lobsters that eat poop and dead things off the bottom, where they live!” Just kidding, I don’t need to compete against lobsters, but the biological fact is solid. 

Is there an elegant way to explain nature’s waste recycling to the consumer? I doubt it, certainly not in a five-second sound bite. So how do we educate the consumer in a short course and not frighten them from our products? If the market wants cheaper tilapia, using manure to grow them will do the trick. Teaching basic facts around how food webs work on land can do much to explain how wild and farmed fish grow, but for some reason, using cow manure in the vegetable garden is normal and acceptable, while adding it into the water for fish is not. 

In many forms of land farming, recycling various agriculture-byproducts is a common practice. Waste products, i.e. manure, are added to soils, ponds or lakes to increase the fertility of the soils and waters to establish an organic environment. This results in creating toxic free animal and plant food webs in soil and water for animals and fish to graze upon. Again, it’s the same in water and for fish; the manure provides the nutrients to grow the natural foods. Fish, like cows, goats and sheep, graze from pastures created by nutrients from various waste recycling systems from the wilds of nature. Like a land farmer spreading animal manure on his fields for the cows to eat, fish use the same kinds of systems. 

In Asian cultures, this concept of recycling is evident in religious philosophies deep within the way people see the world (the Yin-yang connection for example). So it is easier for these cultures (and markets) to accept the fact that Nature is always dying and re-nourishing the new to grow. The concept of waste recycling (fertilizing, manure, farm scraps) to provide nourishment to grow our food is understood and accepted without the Asian consumers needing additional education to understand and accept this concept when it comes to the foods they eat.

Many of us in the so-called West have been fish farming only with commercial feeds, fortunate not to have to go through the trouble of sourcing, collecting, transporting, storing and applying various manures or agriculture byproducts to grow fish on our farms. If your market can afford it, a complete floating feed provides a lot of control and prediction for economic and management coordination. But again, a lot of populations cannot afford tilapia at twice the cost of growing fish with these commercial pellets versus using manure and agriculture byproducts. 

Commercial feed allows for “scalability” in a more industrial model, which requires a high degree of financing to control the fish volumes necessary for profitability. It makes management easier and the Western consumer feels better knowing their fish dinner eats a nutritionally balanced, extruded pellet, just like the family dog, but it’s more about culture and economics, than health.


Tilapia is worse than bacon and 

donuts because of omega-6 levels

This story came as a shock to everyone; it attacked everyone and still gets a lot of play on blogs and various sites. When this Wake Forest study first came out 10 years ago, I think all of the largest fresh tilapia producers tested their fish for omegas. What was interesting was that nobody had omega-6 figures anywhere near as high as the Wake Forest study found. Thereafter, the argument regarding the relationship of omega-6 and omega-3 in a tilapia meal became irrelevant. I’ve never seen any follow-up study supporting or confirming the original study. I think most people feel the study does more harm than good, and to a rational person, the absurdity of eating bacon or donuts over tilapia can only be viewed as a joke. 

GMOs and Frankenfish

Frankenfish seems to be our European comrades’ favorite subject, but I think GMOs are actually a key tool to addressing global hunger. This is the technology that holds the most potential for impact in securing our future food supply. Can you imagine when (not if) a gene can be included into tilapia that allows for phosphorus (in the feed) to be assimilated into the metabolism of the fish, rather than fish farmers paying for and wasting the majority of the phosphorus in the feed and discarding 85% of this and other nutrients to pollute the environment? Imagine if instead of only 20% of the nutrients in feed being converted into fish flesh, GMO changes this to 85% assimilation. When one in eight people on the planet currently goes hungry, how can this be ignored? This is just one of the future benefits of the coming GMO reality. It is not a question of if but when these developments will happen. I doubt a growing and hungry planet is going to allow Europeans to be the gate keepers of these developments, after all their plates are full.

A plethora of recent articles help explain the way GMO foods can help the growing struggle to provide enough food for hungry families. “GMO crops were planted on about 169 million acres (68 million ha) in the U.S. in 2013, about half the total land used for crops”. According to Monsanto, GMO crops have actually been utilized by millions of farmers in nearly 30 countries over the past 17 years, without any proven illness or harm to humans or animals. 

The American Medical Association has even been quoted as declaring that “there is no scientific justification for special labeling of bioengineered foods.” In an October 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, Alex Berezow noted that other organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, World Health Organization, USDA and FDA have recognized the benefits of GMOs. Berezow went on to explain some of the nutritional benefits provided by new GMO organisms, such as a cow in New Zealand which was genetically modified to produce low-allergy milk, a strain of rice that produces more available vitamin A than spinach (with the potential to prevent blindness and subsequent death for hundreds of thousands of children each year), and banana plants with a gene from sweet peppers that provides resistance to a wilting disease that ruins crops in many developing nations in Africa. 

The struggle is perhaps best summed up by Richard Roberts: “I ask this: How many children must suffer before this anti-GMO propaganda is called out for being what it is — a crime against humanity?”

Amen to that!

Mike Picchietti discovered tilapia farming while serving as a Peace Corps in Ghana and went on to become co-founder and President of Regal Springs Trading. With 33 years of experience, he is the owner of Aquasafra, Inc., America’s oldest and largest tilapia hatchery.

Mike  Picchietti

Mike Picchietti

Mike Picchietti is a graduate of a classical, liberal arts, Jesuit education via Loyola University, he took an early attraction to tilapia farming while serving as a Peace Corps in Ghana. Without an academic degree in fish farming Mike had to learn by doing and started literally at the bottom of the pond. Working over 33 years as a laborer, then technician, then manager and finally owning and developing profitable businesses in commercial tilapia farming. The journey was commercial, working hatcheries & grow out to sales and marketing throughout the US, EU, Mexico, Brazil, India and Haiti. He co-founded and was President for 20 years of Regal Springs Trading which grew under a great group of partners to become the largest provider of tilapia fillets in the world, farming in Indonesia, Mexico and Honduras. 

Mike is the owner of Aquasafra, Inc., America’s oldest and largest tilapia hatchery since 1992, He is the current President and co-founder of America’s Tilapia Alliance (ATA) and the Aquaculture Director for Operation Blessings tilapia operations and hatchery in Port au Prince, Haiti He’s written articles for Aquaculture Magazine since the early 90’s and is honored to be part of the team.

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