GMO salmon firm clears one hurdle but still waits for key OKs

Despite Environment Canada's recent approval to produce genetically modified salmon eggs on a commercial scale, AquaBounty Technologies said it is awaiting market approval in Canada and United States.

AquaBounty began seeking American approval in 1995

AquaBounty fish are genetically modified to grow twice as quickly as regular salmon. (AquaBounty)

What seemed like a step towards approving the world's first genetically modified (GM) creature for human consumption a few days ago actually "doesn't change anything," according to a spokesman for AquaBounty Technologies, which has been trying to bring a transgenic salmon to market for years.

Last week, the company got permission from Environment Canada to ramp up production of salmon eggs from research levels to greater commercial quantities.

But there's no reason to do that unless it gets permission from Health Canada to bring the product to market in this country, and more importantly, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which would open the door to the vast American market.

And the latter is as elusive and puzzling for the company today as it was when AquaBounty began seeking American approval in 1995.

"Eighteen-plus years" said AquaBounty's David Conley with a joyless chuckle. "It's a moving target. We just have no idea."

The company's fortunes have occasionally suffered because of it, sometimes scrambling for backing from financiers briefly including the flamboyant Kakha Bendukidze, Georgia's former economy minister, who once put the country's entire infrastructure on the block declaring "everything can be sold, except its conscience and honour."

AquaBounty has submitted all the scientific data the FDA has requested of it. And in significant preliminary findings last year, the FDA said approving the AquaBounty fish "would not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment in the United States," or on American salmon stocks. But then it went and extended the public comment process all over again.

In an email to CBC News this week, the FDA's Theresa Eisenman said "it is not possible to predict a timeline for when these decisions will be made. The comment period...closed April 25 (2013). The agency will review the public comments before making a decision... on whether to prepare a final environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact."

Seeking approval for the first transgenic food creature was always going to be a cautious process because it's controversial, and as much about optics and politics, as science and food safety.

That's because the AquaBounty fish is an Atlantic salmon grown from eggs injected with a gene from the fast-growing Chinook salmon, and a promoter sequence from the eel-like Ocean Pout.  Together, they cause the fish to bulk up in a hurry.

To minimize risk of escape and inter-breeding with wild stocks, the company grows only sterile, female GM eggs, which are sent to a lab in faraway Panama to be grown out.

The results are more fish in less time. Transgenic salmon reach market size much faster than wild or even farmed salmon, making them cheaper to produce, with a big profit potential.

Wild and GM salmon look the same. They even taste the same, according to Dr. Garth Fletcher, a fish biologist affiliated with AquaBounty who helped pioneer the gene science at Memorial University in St. John's, and sometimes ate his results.

But their behaviour and constitution is different, according to federal scientist Dr. Robert Devlin, who grows a variant of his own at the Centre for Aquaculture and Environmental Research in Vancouver.

He says GM salmon need more oxygen than the wild fish. And they're aggressive to the point where they care more about food than danger, and have to be fed up to 20 times a day. "They've got a revved-up metabolism," he told CBC News last year.  "They're hungry all the time."

Public opinion on genetically-modified foods in general is often heated and divided on the question of food safety, all the more because this is the first involving a living creature.

"It's a new innovation and there's a lot of concern around it" said AquaBounty's David Conley.  "The public is not very well-educated on genetics or genetic technologies. There's been an awful lot of activist misrepresentation. There's a number of issues at play. New things create new fears."

But there's no mistaking a global race is on to bring a genetically modified creature to the human dinner plate. China was the first to create a transgenic fish in 1984. The U.S. followed shortly after. Japan has so far tried but failed to create a "super tuna."

Genetically modified fish may be inevitable, and someday as common as genetically modified wheat is today.  Who will be first?  So far, AquaBounty is the only company to apply to produce GM eggs in commercial quantities in Canada.  Somewhere a clock is ticking, not in hours it seems, but in years.


Rick MacInnes-Rae

World Affairs

Until his retirement in July 2014, Rick MacInnes-Rae was the World Affairs Correspondent for CBC News. A former Europe Correspondent and host of Dispatches, his 37-year- career with the CBC has taken him across much of the globe.