Salmon hatchery to raise first genetically modified animal for human consumption

Tony Briscoe
Chicago Tribune
Peter Bowyer, farm manager holds Atlantic salmon weighting 3.5 oz. raised at the AquaBounty Farms Indiana, a commercial fish farm in Albany, Ind., on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

On a winding road on the outskirts of a small Rust Belt town in eastern Indiana, a fish hatchery is poised to raise the country’s first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, altered the genetic makeup of the Atlantic salmon to include a gene from chinook salmon and DNA sequence from an eel-like species known as an ocean pout. The result is a salmon that grows to market size about twice as fast as its natural counterpart.

The company, which already breeds the salmon in Canada, got its first batch of bioengineered eggs at its indoor facility in Albany, Ind., Wednesday, and the first salmon fillets raised there could appear in U.S. supermarkets in late 2020. AquaBounty’s decision to raise the salmon in Indiana is a landmark moment for the Midwest, a region known globally for its agricultural prowess but one where land-based fish farming operations have struggled mightily to become profitable.

AquaBounty purchased the shuttered complex about 10 miles northeast of Muncie where yellow perch had previously been raised and renovated it for Atlantic salmon. Currently, the 16-person staff, which includes factory workers who were laid off in recent years, oversees around 100,000 conventional Atlantic salmon from eggs until they reach market size. That production is expected to grow once the bioengineered eggs arrive.

Commercially raising seafood, a process known as aquaculture, will be necessary to feed the planet’s growing population at a time when rising seafood demand is pitted against plateauing wild fisheries burdened by over-fishing, pollution and climate change, according to industry experts. The U.S., which imports more than 90% of its seafood, has lagged behind much of the world in aquaculture production, and proponents hope the introduction of genetically engineered fish might help promote the industry, relieve pressure on ocean fisheries and scale back the United States’ $16 billion seafood trade deficit.

Peter Bowyer, farm manager inspects tanks at AquaBounty Farms Indiana, a commercial fish farms raising Atlantic salmon in Albany, Ind., on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

“Because this fish grows faster, you can use the same facility and produce twice as much product, and the overhead cost is halved,” said William Muir, a professor emeritus at Purdue University who has researched genetically modified animals. “That’s really where we’re going with it: Can we produce fish more cheaply? The fact is, aquaculture is expensive and it’s not competitive with ocean-caught fish, because the ocean is free. But if you can produce salmon cheaply inland, large urban centers like Chicago would love to have fresh salmon next door.”

However, some consumer groups remain fiercely opposed to the production and sale of genetically modified organisms. These organizations have been vocal crusaders against AquaBounty, pressuring many mainstream retailers into pledging they won’t carry the product they have maligned as “Frankenfish.”

“This is purely a commercial decision to make the fish grow faster,” said Megan Westgate, executive director of The Non-GMO Project, a Washington state-based nonprofit. “ They’ve succeeded in proving that desired trait. But there’s no benefit to the consumer or the environment. I think that’s why a lot of average people would rather eat salmon as nature intended.”

To date, there’s no scientific evidence concluding that genetically modified foods are harmful to human health. The FDA says AquaBounty salmon are as safe to eat as conventional salmon.

Muir, who studied the risks of the salmon being exposed to the wild population based on government data, said many of the fears surrounding GMO foods are overblown.

“These people who are anti-GMO are not data-driven, they are agenda-driven. And their agenda was to make sure a GMO product was never on a dinner plate,” he said.

However, one of the foremost complaints against AquaBounty has been transparency. In Canada, where the company sells conventional and genetically modified salmon, it has sold hundreds of tons of the fish, although it wouldn’t disclose to which retailers, and there are no requirements for labeling in that country.

After the genetically modified salmon was approved to be raised and sold in the U.S. in 2015, egg shipments were blocked until labeling guidelines were established, which allowed for the import ban to be lifted two months ago. Still, the U.S. labeling mandate won’t take effect until 2022, creating uncertainty about whether AquaBounty will voluntarily label its salmon in the interim.

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf argues there’s no need for labeling in Canada because both wild and genetically modified salmon are the same nutritionally. But Westgate, of The Non-GMO Project, said a lack of disclosure robs consumers of choice.

“People should know what’s in their food,” Westgate said. “It’s a transgenic species, a combination of three fish. A lot of people just feel it’s unnatural, and it’s not fish they’d want to feed to their children.”