Viewpoint: Do we really need GM fish? The case for growing (and eating) AquaBounty’s biotech, fast-growing salmon

Innovation and creative thinking in the protein industry is ever-evolving. You may have read some of our posts on the perils of overfishing our oceans and rivers. So when I heard about the genetically-modified AquAdvantage salmon that addresses sustainability issues as well as the potential to bring income to rural America, I was immediately curious. Of course, I wondered whether it was regulated and what the testing looked like. So I dug deeper and learned a lot about how this fish is grown.

AquAdvantage – What is it?

AquAdvantage Salmon is the first genetically-modified salmon approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada. AquaBounty, the company behind AquAdvantage, has its unlikely farm in Indiana. Yes – the Midwest can grow salmon!

This fish is more sustainable and unique because it can grow to maturity in just 18 months, compared to 36 months for a traditionally farmed salmon. Both take significantly less time than their wild cousins, which can take 7 years.

Farmed and wild Atlantic salmon stop growing during the winter and when they are environmentally stressed. Wild salmon take so long to reach maturity because they are foraging for food, avoiding predators, and dealing with tough environmental conditions. Farmed salmon also have a tough time growing because, even though they are swimming in enclosed sea nets, they are still exposed to diseases, parasites, and sometimes water that is too warm.

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30 years ago, the AquaBounty salmon was genetically modified to help survive their early, most vulnerable stages of growth. Just like a labradoodle dog — a cross between a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle — an AquAdvantage salmon is a combination of the Atlantic salmon, the Chinook salmon’s growth gene, and a gene promoter from an ocean pout. Not the most attractive fish in the ocean, the major benefit of the ocean pout is that their ‘promoters’ turn on the Chinook growth gene to make the fish grow all the time, as opposed to seasonal growth with the Atlantic salmon’s promoters. And if an ocean pout was on the menu, I would certainly try one, growth promoter and all.

What does the FDA say?

The FDA approved the AquAdvantage salmon as “safe and effective” under the new animal drug provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in November 2015.

The FDA studied this fish for over 25 years. The first 10 years were setting up the prenotification process before filing for approval. For the next 15 years, they wanted to prove three things: Is it safe for the fish? Is it safe for humans? Is it safe for the environment? The answer to all three was yes.

Finally, after all these years of research development and regulatory evaluation, the first fish is expected to be harvested in December 2020 at AquaBounty’s farm in Indiana.

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There is no mystery involved here. You will know when you are eating an AquaBounty fish when you buy your fish at a market or grocery store. The USDA National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act requires ‘mandatory standards for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered’. However, restaurants are not under an obligation to highlight genetically modified salmon on their menu.

Less feed – Better conversion rate

One of the most remarkable attributes of this breed is that, despite its continual growth, it requires less daily food. The on-farm results with AquAdvantage salmon have confirmed the scientific studies and demonstrated that it is possible to produce one pound of fish with less than one pound of feed. This is compared to most farmed Atlantic salmon which take one pound of fish feed to grow one pound of fish.

Grown without antibiotics in indoor farms

All of these fish are – and will be – grown in highly-regulated fish farms. If you ever had a fish tank, this is not the same thing. Biofiltration units keep the water clean, fresh, and provide great conditions where this salmon can thrive. Because of the clean environment, the fish do not get sick or acquire sea lice, so they are always grown without antibiotics.

The tanks are completely contained without the possibility of a fish escaping into the wild. Yet they are big enough for the fish to jump and swim in schools – allowing them to be their natural selves.  They do not have to forage for food as they are fed just enough for them to grow and not too much to stimulate excessive waste.

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AquaBounty’s indoor grow-out tanks prevent escapement and eliminate parasites that lead to disease.

Stimulating economic growth in rural America

So much of rural America has lost the benefits of agriculture. Bringing fish farms to parts of America is a way to boost economic growth, especially in the mountainous areas such as West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. It is an opportunity to bring jobs and income to areas that have lost their income in part due to bankruptcies in the farming sector, many in the dairy industry.

AquaBounty has found that Indiana, where the company has its current U.S. farm, and other mid-west locations, are great examples of states committed to AgriTech.

AquaBounty actively works with local and state governments and agencies that are committed to AgriTech. They believe this is the future of agriculture as well as their state’s economic and employment growth.

AquaBounty also closely monitors the USDA Rural Economic Development Program as part of the site selection process.

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Why do we need AquAdvantage?

In 2018, Atlantic salmon, second to shrimp, was the most valued farmed fish in the world. The upward projections continue and is expected to grow to 4 million tons by just 2023, from about 3.5 million tons in 2019. The U.S. imports about 400,000 tons of salmon every year. About 70% come from farms – mostly in Norway, Chile, Scotland, and Canada.

Salmon is particularly healthy — it is rich in minerals, micronutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and many vitamins. Not only is salmon good for you, but it is easy to cook for dinner, throw together in a salad, or even have as sushi. More and more consumers are enjoying the health, taste, and ease of cooking it at home.

Related article:  Viewpoint: EU's neonicotinoid ban is a 'scientific fraud' and won't protect bees

However, we cannot catch them all with a fishing pole or a fishing boat or we will not have any left.

Remember the Atlantic Cod off the coast of Maine? As a D2D reader, you may have read about the sustainable importance of farmed fish versus wild-caught.

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As the oceans become over-fished, there are many benefits to eating fish grown from responsibly managed fish farms and ocean fisheries.

With diligent oversight, these operations help meet demand while natural aquatic habitats improve from current overfished conditions.

What do consumers say about GMO fish?

Concerned about whether consumers would embrace a genetically engineered fish, the AquaBounty management team conducted extensive research to determine their reaction. Here are key points from Quantitative Research Executive Summary:

  • 53% of consumers’ initial impressions of the term GMO/GE are neutral to positive – many are conflicted
  • Respondents are neutral about purchasing products they regularly buy if labeled GMO/GE.
  • Almost three-quarters rank level of trust for government agencies to provide oversight/guidelines as Neutral to Trust Very Much
  • Top-ranked attributes for AquAdvantage Salmon: Chemical free, Nutritious, Antibiotic Free Consistent Access to Fresh Fish, Affordability, FDA Approved

What do NGOs and political figures say about a GMO fish?

When the news came out, even our local fish market had loud ‘NO GMO SALMON HERE’ signs posted everywhere. Of course, it was not sold ‘here’ because the salmon was a couple of years away from being available….

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Concern: Anti-GMO, NGOs, and other groups filed a legal challenge in March 2016 in the San Francisco federal court. The first challenge was whether the FDA’s animal drug authority could oversee genetically-engineered animals and fish. The second claim said that the FDA violated core environmental laws in the event these fish escaped into the wild.

Response: Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco affirmed that the FDA had the authority to oversee genetically-engineered animals and fish. For the second claim, while he understood that the FDA had thoroughly analyzed the exceptionally low probability of escape, they did not address the consequences if this breed of salmon were to establish a persistent population in the wild. Judge Chhabria ruled that AquaBounty can continue its operations in Prince Edward Island, Canada and Indiana. Nor did the Judge prevent AquaBounty from harvesting in December 2020.

AquAdvantage salmon cannot make the leap from a land-based indoor tank to the wild. All these facilities have tightly-closed septic and water systems to prevent eggs or fish from escaping.

In addition, all the fish will be sterile females and, unlike the protogynous sea bass, a female salmon cannot turn into a productive male, thus procreating with wild salmon – or any other fish for that matter. Once a salmon is sterile – it is sterile.

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Other concerns such as those from The Consumer’s Union are worth mentioning as their issues are similar to GMOs overall.

Concern: More and more children are getting allergic reactions to different types of foods, like nuts and eggs. Since these salmon are GMOs, they must contribute to children’s allergies.  They are also an advocate of labeling.

Response: As we have mentioned in previous posts regarding GMOs, all GMOs are tested for allergies…in fact, every single allergy known to humans. AquAdvantage fish are no exception. It is also worth noting that the gene brought into the salmon is a growth promoter. There are no known allergies to naturally occurring growth hormones.

These GMOs are required to be labeled if they are sold at the fish market or grocery store. However, not at a restaurant.

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Concern: GM Watch says that these hormones can cause cancer and the fish could have different protein levels. The concern is that the additional hormones create a hormone called IGF-1 that increases insulin and causes cancer.

Response: When you eat an AquAdvantage salmon, the growth gene from the Chinook salmon and the growth promoter from the ocean pout could not affect you or change your genes.  It is the same as eating any type of seafood. They all have growth hormones – otherwise, they would not grow!

The IGF-1 hormone is necessary for all vertebrae and mammals to mature. While the ocean pout hormone is different than the salmon hormone, this hormone does not produce more insulin in the human body. In truth, the IGF-1 hormone is present in humans already and a too low level might cause diabetes and other health issues.

Concern: This fish has a higher ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, compared to other salmon that have more omega 3s.

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Response: A different growth hormone does not affect the nutritional quality of this salmon. Also, most farmed fish are fed with by-catch. In this case, they are working with an algae product that produces the same fatty acid profile as fish.

The bottom line

Aquaculture is one of many necessary solutions to meet the high global demand for healthy protein. At D2D, we believe that anything with a different gene inserted into its DNA should be regulated. This fish is no exception and we take comfort in knowing that the FDA took 15 years to ensure this is safe for human consumption.

Lucy M. Stitzer is a food writer and regular contributor at Dirt to Dinner. She served on the Board at the food company Cargill for many years.

A version of this article was originally posted at Dirt To Dinner and has been reposted here with permission. Dirt To Dinner can be found on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner

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