Another (GMO) Fish Tale From Aqua Bounty
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 By 2008, the shrimp feed additive was withdrawn from the market, and the company’s mid-year 2009 report notes total sales revenue at zero following withdrawal of the product.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.