Last August, AquaBounty Technologies sold their first 4.5 tons of genetically engineered salmon to customers in Canada. Called AquAdvantage®, the fish are descended from Atlantic salmon and modified with a growth hormone from the Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter sequence (a fragment of DNA) from the ocean pout. With the inserted genes, AquAdvantage® salmon grow much faster than conventional Atlantic salmon, reaching harvestable size in approximately 200 days, as opposed to the current 350 days required by the domesticated Atlantic salmon raised on fish farms, and the 700 days required by wild salmon. The Maynard, Mass. company spent more than two decades researching, testing, and getting final regulatory consent for AquAdvantage®, which was finally approved for human consumption by the FDA in 2015. But consumers are divided on the new genetically modified salmon, and fierce public debate has erupted around food safety, environmental impacts, and biological patents.
Canadian researchers produced the first genetically modified salmon in 1989. At the time, demand for salmon was increasing dramatically, and wild Atlantic salmon had essentially landed on the extinction list due to overfishing. Aquaculture and farm-raised salmon emerged, but farmed fish continued to die in the sea pens during the cold Canadian winters. The Canadian government offered a grant to researchers to solve this problem. Garth Fletcher, a professor in the Ocean Sciences Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland, won the grant with his plans to genetically modify the fish. At first, the research team experimented with introducing genes to make the fish more resistant to the cold. When that failed, they pivoted to genes designed to get the fish to market size faster so that they wouldn’t have to weather a tough Atlantic winter. AquAdvantage® salmon was born.
But creating the salmon would prove to be much easier than getting it approved as food. There was no clear regulatory path for a genetically modified fish, and they anticipated a number of concerns. At the time, farm-raised salmon often escaped their sea pen confines. How would they ensure the genetically modified fish remain contained? And how would the fish impact native species if they did escape and were able to breed? Before presenting the fish for regulatory approval, they made some choices to mitigate concerns. First, they decided all AquAdvantage® fish would be female and sterile, ensuring they would never be able to breed with wild salmon. They also determined all AquAdvantage® fish would be raised in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) so that there would be no chance of mingling genetically modified fish with native species. According to Dave Conley, corporate communications director for AquaBounty, in the 25 years that they’ve been breeding AquAdvantage® fish, there have been no escapees.
As there were no established paths for approval for a genetically modified food, the FDA attempted to approve the fish in the same way that they approve drugs, requiring safety studies, public comment periods on labeling requirements, and environmental impact reports.
According to AquaBounty, growing salmon faster results in a number of key benefits. It conserves wild fish populations by utilizing 25 percent less feed. Fish-based aquaculture feed is one of the main points of opposition to fish farming. By growing the fish faster, this considerably reduces the amount needed to bring the fish to market size. The AquAdvantage® method for growing fish in land-based systems also reduces emissions as the fish can be bred and grown close to the stores and markets where they can be sold. According to a 2016 study published in Aquacultural Engineering, the carbon footprint of a land-based RAS facility is half that of a traditional open pen system. In addition, global demand for seafood is on the rise. Raising the fish faster will help meet that growing demand.
THE DEBATE CONTINUES
Some consumers are concerned that the FDA has not required AquaBounty to label the fish as genetically modified because “… the data and information evaluated show that AquAdvantage Salmon is not materially different from other Atlantic salmon.” Proponents of GMO labeling claim genetically modified food is inadequately tested and that consumers have a right to understanding what is in their food. There are also fears that, despite their best intentions, a release of genetically modified salmon into the wild is inevitable. As AquaBounty is planning to sell the eggs of the AquAdvantage® salmon, how they control the production of these fish in the future is not wholly understood. Finally, perhaps on a more fundamental ethical level, some are concerned that the power to create new life is held by a corporation. In response to some of these concerns, several major grocery chains have pledged not to sell AquAdvantage®.
AquAdvantage® fish are already available in Canadian grocery stores. But even though the fish are approved for human consumption, they are currently banned from import to the US due to a rider attached to a 2015 budget bill by Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Even with the ban in place, AquaBounty recently purchased an aquaculture facility in Indiana, and started construction on the facility with the hope of overturning the ban and bringing the transgenic eggs to the US. AquaBounty has also started working on genetically modified tilapia and trout for commercial approval, and is completing another location in Rollo Bay, on Prince Edward Island. At this point, even if AquaBounty is not able to expand into the US, it is already expanding across Canada.
“We are providing technology to improve food production and make it sustainable,” said AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotish in a February article in The New Food Economy. This, he said, will put society in a better position "to address the global food security issues we’ll face as the world’s population approaches 10 billion."