Making sense of 'Frankenfish'

The furor over genetically engineered foods with U.S. food authorities close to approving a new breed of salmon designed to grow faster.

AquaBounty says its salmon means more efficient aquaculture

AquaBounty's salmon appears next to a non-genetically engineered salmon. Both are the same age. (AquaBounty)

The furor over genetically engineered foods is back for another round with U.S. food authorities close to approving a new breed of salmon that has been designed to grow faster.

The Food and Drug Administration is pondering whether to give final approval to the AquaAdvantage fish, an Atlantic salmon that has had chinook salmon and ocean pout genes inserted into it. The approval would clear the way for human consumption and likely open the door for other genetically modified animals to be used for food purposes.

AquaBounty Technologies has run a gamut of regulatory hurdles since the fish was created in 1989 by scientists at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Waltham, Mass.-based company acquired the licence for the fish in 1994 and began the regulatory approval process in 1996.

The company, which operates a significant salmon farming operation in Prince Edward Island, hopes it will be able to start selling the fish in the next two years.

As with genetically engineered crops such as Golden Rice, which has been formulated to have a higher beta-carotene content, the fish has faced a barrage of questions. Critics have said the salmon could damage the environment if they escaped into the wild, or they could be harmful to human health. The latest arguments against the fish say it could be more allergenic because of its varied genes.

John Buchanan, director of research and development for AquaBounty, discussed with CBC News the fish's long route through the regulatory process and what it could mean for the future of food. Have all the hoops that genetically modified plants jumped through made it any easier for you or is this a whole different ball of wax?

Buchanan: My impression is at this point it's a whole different ball of wax because it's a whole different agency overseeing it, so they have different ways of looking at things. Are people considerably more sensitive because you're dealing with animals as opposed to crops?

Buchanan: Scientifically, it seems like a fairly artificial line to draw. We already consume genetically engineered crops and we've seen the benefits of that technology, but because it's an animal and not a plant, certainly that's attracted more attention. It would be the first animal approval. The fish has faced pretty much all the same concerns as genetically modified crops, with the latest being that it could be more allergenic. Is that correct?

Buchanan: Part of the frustrating thing, although it's not surprising, is that people raise unfounded concerns that you are then forced to address. Just like Golden Rice, every aspect of the fish has been exhaustively studied over a decade and millions and millions of dollars have been spent trying to answer every possible question. Even in terms of allergenicity, our data certainly supports that there is no problem and the FDA concluded that there is nothing biologically concerning, but you still get this perpetuation that there is a problem. It's safe to say this is the most studied line of fish ever. We know much more about this fish than even the farmed salmon that are consumed routinely, or even any other kind of fish that's consumed, in terms of its genetics and how it's composed. Scientifically, we've answered every relevant question with a comprehensive data set, which the FDA, at least in their preliminary review, found to be very supportive. That's the price to be paid in being first with any technology, right?

Buchanan: Our CEO Ron Stotish often jokes that he wishes we were third. Where you differ from Golden Rice is that rice is often a staple, but salmon isn't really, so the question really becomes: how much of a need is there for a better fish?

Buchanan: The nutritional benefits of salmon are well documented and as a protein source, it's one of the best around. It's part of a healthy diet and it's a $6-billion industry. About 1.5 million tonnes of salmon are farmed every year, so it's a giant industry already. Wild fisheries exist and salmon populations are under pressure from overfishing and habitat loss. The benefits of being more efficient in how you produce salmon in aquaculture include reducing the pressure on wild fisheries. The ocean is overfished and you can't get more fish from it. What we're getting now is probably not sustainable over the long term, so as a protein source, additional seafood has to come from somewhere. It's going to come from aquaculture. Either that or people are going to have to start eating less fish, and that's not going to happen, right?

Buchanan: That's true. Producing fish is one of the most efficient ways of producing protein. Aquaculture is quite efficient in that regard. Golden Rice has been driven primarily by humanitarian purposes, although there is a commercial component to it as well. Is the AquaAdvantage fish purely commercial?

Buchanan: It's a commercial concern that initially addresses a problem in the industry, which is how do we produce salmon more efficiently? But in reality, the humanitarian benefits are that it's much more environmentally friendly to grow this fish than typical farmed salmon. In Canada, you're probably familiar with all the objections people had to salmon culture and associated environmental degradation concerns about fish escaping and interbreeding with wild populations, establishing their own populations, disease transfer from the farmed fish to the wild fish, antibiotics getting into the environment and even just use of coastal resources. People may want to use that as a recreational area but it's got a large salmon farm in it. In Canada in particular, there's this large initiative to look at landbased salmon production because it solves many of these problems. From the producer's perspective, landbased production has significant benefits as well. One would be biosecurity — disease goes both ways; it can go from farmed fish to wild salmon but it can also be moved from wild salmon to your farmed fish. If you have a landbased system, you can treat the water coming in and you can feed your fish more efficiently and treat problems early on before they become an issue. The major constraint is economic — they're more expensive to operate so our fish, with the efficiencies that are generated there, make landbased salmon cultures economically feasible. You can say this is good for the environment. The issue that usually arises from that, as it does from any sort of animal farming, are animal rights concerns, that they're bred in unpleasant, tight confines. Is there any defence to that?

Buchanan: You've touched on that accurately. It's not really a question for transgenic salmon so much as it is a question for agriculture in general. Our technology doesn't address that. One common criticism of genetically engineered foods is that we don't necessarily need them — that we could address rising food demand if we only better distributed the food we already waste. What do you think of that argument?

Buchanan: Keeping the focus on seafood, the UN projects that by 2030 we're going to have to triple our current seafood production [to meet demand]. It can't come from the oceans at this point, so aquaculture production is going to have to triple in the next 20 years. While you can make gains by being more efficient in how you distribute food, there's no way you can address that need just by being more efficient. You have to be more efficient in how you produce it. Is the law of accelerating returns, where new advances stack on each other to produce even more advances, applicable to food technology?

Buchanan: Certainly as a test case for genetic engineering in animals, a [regulatory] approval would make the regulatory pathway clear so people who are currently not pursuing ideas would pursue them. There would be a finish line that's clearly observable. In that sense, we can help pave the way for additional innovations. In our company, we have drawn up plans for stacking transgenic technologies so added nutrition plus more efficient use of feed plus faster growth — those things would all exist. People aren't working on those ideas currently because the pathway to approval is so fraught with peril. The FDA wasn't sure how they'd regulate it and the companies weren't sure what information they'd have to provide. I can see some of that being a possibility for sure. And with early biotech patents starting to expire, that could mean a double bonus in terms of accelerating research?

Buchanan: Yes, and what people often don't appreciate is that while it does give you protection for a period of time, once the patent expires [you have to provide] a detailed explanation of exactly what you did. If it were a trade secret and not a patent, people might never know — people still don't know what the formula for Coke is, for example. So there is some public service in patenting ideas. It's been said that if you do get the FDA approval, that will open the floodgates to genetically engineered animals that can be eaten. Is that an accurate prediction?

Buchanan: I don't know. Over the last 10 years, enthusiasm for genetic engineering to address some food problems has been waning, particularly in animals, because people have been working on it and publishing scientifically interesting results and patenting things and coming up with ideas, but nothing was moving forward with the regulatory framework. I don't know if it'll open the floodgates but it could be a blueprint for how you could go about getting something that could be of benefit approved. Has the media under-reported the benefits and over-reported the criticisms?

Buchanan: I think the major media has treated the issue fairly. All you can hope for is a balanced story that's fair and, on balance, it's been treated fairly. There are obviously some outlets that are more activist oriented that may not be as fair but for the reputable media sources, I feel pretty good about how we've been treated. Going back to the issue of animal rights and farming in general, we're in the early days of genetically engineering meat without actually even involving animals. How realistic a goal is that, how far away is it and is it the solution to all our problems?

Buchanan: I couldn't even begin to speculate on that. I see some things that are done scientifically and reported on and it's certainly intriguing. At some point you could look at science fiction, which people often look at as a harbinger of where we might be headed, and at some point [maybe] we eat a little green bar and that's your nutrition. The population [might get] so large that luxuries like cooking and enjoying a meal and a glass of wine are gone. You're eating only for sustenance. Where it all will go, I'm not sure.


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.