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Another (GMO) Fish Tale From Aqua Bounty

January 27, 2010

Earlier this month, genetically engineered (GMO) salmon produced by the US-company Aqua Bounty were reportedly condemned in Panama, due to fears that the super-salmon could escape and wreak havoc on natural fish populations. The company later claimed the report was inaccurate, but company documents acknowledge that its Panamanian operation was established in 2008 with the goal of “conducting commercial trials of the Company’s AquAdvantage salmon.”

Whatever the situation in Panama, concerns about the impending approval of genetically engineered (GMO) salmon are nothing new (nor are concerns about farmed salmon in general: Greenpeace just announced that mega-retailer Target will stop selling all farmed salmon . An article last February noted that Aqua Bounty was “soon” expecting FDA approval for the GMO salmon, which grows more rapidly than its natural counterpart.

Aqua Bounty has been seeking FDA approval since 1996, and has repeatedly claimed approval was just around the corner. In 2003, company founder and then-CEO Elliot Entis told Business Week that he hoped for FDA approval within a year. In 2004, another report stated the company was looking for approval by the end of the year. Another Business Week story in 2006 noted the fish could be on the market “as early as 2008.”

In mid-2008, the company said that the first salmon for a “commercial market test” were expected to reach harvest weight by late 2009. By mid-2009, the company projected the fish would be up to harvest weight “in early 2010.” The timeline for the market test, they said, was “proceeding on plan.”

Aqua Bounty has a history of over-promising and underperforming: projected sales of its shrimp feed additive were slated to be $370 million by 2010; in fact, total sales for all of the company’s products peaked at less than $800,000 in 2005. By 2008, the shrimp feed additive was withdrawn from the market, and the company’s mid-year 2009 report notes total sales revenue at zero following withdrawal of the product.

A look at its financial reports shows a company in deep waters. Aqua Bounty lost more than $8 million in 2006, and more than $6.5 million each year in 2007 and 2008, and projected a $5 million loss for 2009. Despite the losses, the company recently received a $2.9 million grant from the Canadian government’s “Atlantic Innovation Fund” and $100,000 from the US National Science Foundation.

The company’s latest financial statement notes, “At this level of cash burn, Aqua Bounty expects its funds to take the Company at least into 2011 before revenues need to cover costs…. Once AquAdvantage® [GMO] Salmon is approved for sale, the Company’s focus will be to develop sales as quickly as practical.”

In other words, the company’s future depends on FDA approval this year.

Of course, Aqua Bounty’s future also requires that consumers continue to be kept in the dark about the super salmon, if it ever does get to market. Since people don’t want to eat GMO salmon, their product can only survive in the marketplace if it is not labeled. Consumer groups have called for labeling, and food safety, environmental and wild salmon advocates have opposed approval (and called for strict regulation if approved) of the GMO salmon, but FDA is unwilling to require labels on GMO food, despite inherent risks in the genetic engineering process.

The techniques used to produce GMO crops or animals inherently create unpredictable side effects. Gene tinkerers literally shoot inserted genes into “target” organisms, and do not know where in the organisms’ genome the inserted gene will land. Thus they cannot know what other genes may be affected, or how the inserted gene will respond in the new host. Several studies on genetic engineering intended for faster growing fish have found a bounty of side effects, including impacts on swimming ability, feeding rates, muscle structure, life span and more. One study found GMO salmon had changes in head and body shape, with enlarged abdomens and larger than normal intestines, among other unexpected changes.

One of the most troubling side-effects of gene tinkering is a potential increase in allergens or creation of new allergens. A New England Journal of Medicine article on GMO food noted that the potential for allergies created from GMO foods is “uncertain, unpredictable, and untestable.”

GMO fish are also likely to irreversibly alter natural marine environments, with unpredictable and possibly fatal impacts on natural fish species. One study demonstrated that an escape of relatively few GMO fish could wipe out local fish populations in just 40 generations. Escapes of fish from aquaculture facilities are so routine that Canada’s draft policy stated that GMO fish “must be treated the same as fish released into the natural ecosystem.”

Despite the risks of GMO fish, widespread consumer concern, and the dubious track record of the company bringing GMO salmon to market, the US government continues to fund research and development of GMO seafood through its Sea Grant programs. Research into numerous GMO species, including catfish, sea bass, tilapia, oysters and other fish and seafood is ongoing at many of the country’s thirty-two Sea Grant universities.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellen permalink
    January 28, 2010 2:12 pm

    Rather than whether one fledgling biotech company is making its deadlines or finding adequate funding while awaiting FDA approvals, I am more concerned with the overfishing that is causing our fisheries to collapse. As it is, 99 percent of the Atlantic salmon purchased in the United States is farmed, and 94 percent of it comes from fish farms overseas.

    We are constantly being told that seafood is good for our health. Demand for seafood is ever on the rise. Well, it has to come from someplace. Environmental groups complain that fish farming pollutes the oceans and leads to the spread of disease. If genetically altering these fish so they can grow faster and be grown in closed systems on land will reduce the environmental threats and allow our fisheries to come back to health, why not continue the research we need to see if this is feasible? That only seems to make sense.

  2. John Henry permalink
    January 28, 2010 2:40 pm

    I, for one, am happy that the US continues to fund research into genetically modified seafood.

    The writer of this blog seems to be overlooking some far more important issues, such as the fact that the world’s fisheries are collapsing even as the global demand for seafood grows. Nearly 3 billion people worldwide get at least 15 percent of their animal protein from fish. Currently, we’re getting about 47 percent of our seafood from fish farmers. That percentage is only going to grow.

    But fish farming has its problems. Most farmed fish are raised in net pens, which cause a high degree of pollution due to excess waste and nutrients and fouling from antibiotics and other chemicals used to ward off the spread of disease.

    Companies like Aqua Bounty and others using land-based aquaculture are at least trying to find a solution. The closed containment systems used in land-based aquaculture prevent the spread of disease and eliminate the threat of ocean pollution from feces or chemicals. The fish cannot escape and therefore pose no threat to wild fish populations.

    Even the environmental community, which has taken issue with fish grown in net pens, has begun to embrace land-based aquaculture. Seafood Watch recently put one company that grows fish in closed containment systems on its “Super Green” list, meaning it is both good for the environment and better for people because it contains fewer contaminants and high levels of omega 3 fatty acids. See http://fis.com/fis/techno/newtechno.asp?ndb=1&l=e&id=35210.

    GMO fish, which are grown in the same closed systems, also provide environmental benefits. Genetically modifying the fish allows them to grow to market size faster and more efficiently (though not larger) so that they use less feed.

    According to the United Nations, the worldwide supply of seafood must double by 2050 to meet global demands. It seems to me the more we know about transgenic fish and other alternatives, the better.

    • cmargulis permalink*
      January 28, 2010 3:20 pm

      Thanks to Ellen and John for the comments.

      As you both refer to “closed” land-based aquaculture systems, I’ll point out that Aqua Bounty;s clear intention (from all of their promotional and financial materials) is to sell GMO salmon eggs to be raised by current net-pen based salmon farms, not to raise themselves in closed systems. There currently is one small salmon producer using a land-based system, and that facility is fledgling at best — and still doesn’t address a key environmental issue with aquaculture, namely water use and waste water disposal, which negates the claim that the system is truly “closed.” (see http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/Magazine/so04/indepth/portrait.asp )

      In short, gmo seafood does nothing to address the very real overfishing issues you bring up — which is why organizations like Greenpeace and Ocean Futures (see http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/gefish.cfm ) oppose the introduction of gmo fish and call for real soltuions to hunger and overfishing.

  3. Ellen permalink
    January 28, 2010 3:35 pm

    The FDA approval is contingent on being grown in enclosed systems. So you’re incorrect there – or possibly looking at old literature.

    In my view, it is worth experimenting with solutions that are usable on a global and commercial scale. It may be that the only way to meet our world protein needs is to restrict ourselves only to sustainably harvested fish (or, perhaps, for all of us to turn to soy), but these solutions are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

    We are more likely to meet massive demand for fish protein by encouraging enclosed systems and developing solutions that help meet global demand.

  4. Ellen permalink
    January 29, 2010 10:29 am

    Hi cmargulis – thanks again for the post and the opportunity to talk about this important issue. Sorry I took a moment to respond, wanted to find links to answer your question about sources on contained systems. First, the FDA has said in numerous public settings that it intends to require closed systems. Sadly, these are not available by link. However, one assumes the FDA itself will probably respond to the letter you posted letting them know this.

    As important, the company has publicly stated that this is how it intends to request approval. On the website AquaBounty states:

    AquAdvantage® Salmon will be reared in physically contained facilities, similar to those used in the commercial trout industry. AquAdvantage® Salmon will thus be raised with redundant biological and physical containment, mitigating any potential risk of a negative impact on genetic diversity of wild stocks.

    Q. Can we be sure that AquAdvantage® Salmon will really be sterile?

    A. Yes. There are specific tests to establish the effectiveness of our process to produce sterile fish. These tests will be performed on every commercial batch of fish to assure our product meets our specifications.

    Link here: http://bit.ly/9wUhGr

    In addition, in this video board member and founder Elliot Entis describes the process (it takes some time to load, be patient — and please stay with him through the initial discussion of “triploidy” – or sterilization).

    As Entis says, the fish “are very unlikely that they’ll ever escape from Iowa” and in any event, should one of these female salmon find a strapping young Iowan farm boy salmon with whom to mate, she’d be sterile.

    Thanks much – I’m not an apologist for this technology, but someone very interested in over-fishing problems. I’d beg all of us enviros (of whom I count myself an ardent member with a long history of activism) not to let a knee-jerk suspicion of GMOs be the enemy of the good while our seas are fished to extinction.

    • cmargulis permalink*
      January 29, 2010 10:41 am

      Hi Ellen -
      thanks for digging up those links. Aqua Bounty has a history of telling the public what it wanst to hear and saying another thing to investors. In its latest (May 2009) financials (link above in the first paragraph of the post), the company states that “Plans for the production of saleable [gmo] AquAdvantage® salmon eggs are underway.” The sale of the eggs will be to current conventional net pen salmon farms. The notion that they can make a profit raising the fish in their closed-systems is nonsense, and their own financial plans show this is not their intention (the notion of 100% sterility is also nonsense, and even if achieved, scientists point out that escaped sterile fish may still compete for mating (which may not take, but that too will impact native species) and for resources with natural fish populations.
      Also, if FDA intends to make approval conditional, why haven’t they responded to environmentalists who asked them to do this more than a year ago? in fact, the agency has consistently stated that their only authority is food safety, and that they have no authority over environmental concerns (and in this case, they have actually limited themselves even more, by considering the fish under its “new animal drug” regulatory authority.
      There’s nothing kneee-jerk about concerns regarding GMO fish – if anything they are a major threat to exacerbate overfishing (read Cousteau’s Ocean Futures piece) .

  5. Ellen permalink
    January 29, 2010 4:18 pm

    Thanks for those clarifications, cMargulis. I guess I have more faith in the markets, and in technology, and even in the poor beleaguered FDA. But, most especially, with oceans on the verge of collapse within the next few decades I feel an urgent need to have faith in efforts to explore new solutions. The old solutions (with the possible exception of catch shares) are not getting us anywhere at all.

    Remember being at the beach as a kid and seeing all those the air bubbles as thousands of sand crabs dug down below the sand when each wave pulled away? I don’t see that at the beach any more when I take my kids. And that’s just the tiniest tip of the ice berg.

    Desperate times call for brave measures.

Trackbacks

  1. AquaBounty GMO Salmon paid for by Canadian Taxpayers « GE Free BC
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