While genetically-engineered (GE) crops are nothing new to U.S. dining tables, GE animals are a different matter. In the case of GE salmon, at least, it appears that is about to change.

Reports that government regulators will soon approve the fish -– developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies -- for consumption have surfaced and, as expected, GE naysayers are howling in protest. Along with the typical concerns about the safety of such genetic manipulation in general, there are also worries about such fish getting loose and, if that happens, how they will affect wild salmon populations.  

In mid-October, Delta Farm Press spoke with Ron Stotish, AquaBounty President and CEO. Stotish spoke on the arguments against GE salmon, the positive impact the GE fish could have on declining world fisheries and where they can be raised. Among his comments:

A short history…

“I joined AquaBounty in 2006 from another biotech company. I came specifically to help them with preparations for a new animal-drug application for the AquAdvantage salmon.

“When I joined, there really wasn’t anyone in the company with experience in getting a product like this approved. In fact, it was before the FDA issued guidance on how these products would be regulated.

“So, I arrived in 2006 and took over as CEO in 2008.

“My background – over close to 40 years, now -- is in the animal health industry with extensive involvement in research, development and commercialization of a variety of animal drugs.”

This is the first GE animal set to be approved by the government?

“That’s absolutely true. This would be the first genetically modified (GM) food animal approved in the United States.

“As your readers know, we’ve had GM crops for many years. Their market penetration is quite extensive. That’s particularly true of soybeans, sugar beets, cotton and other crops.

“Although this sort of science started with animal systems back in the 1970s, the animal side has been much slower to move into the food supply.”

On the GE salmon genetics…

“It’s very straight-forward. These fish are basically genetically identical to all other Atlantic salmon with one exception: we’ve added a single gene for the growth hormone from a Chinook salmon. A single copy of that gene has been placed in the Atlantic salmon background so that fish grows faster than the unmodified Atlantic salmon.

“That’s roughly one gene out of, probably, 30,000 in the fish. That’s less than one ten thousandth of one percent of the DNA. That’s less variability than you see, for instance, in normal sexual mating and other sorts of changes in animal genomes.

“It’s a very minor, very specific change. And what we’ve done is basically give the fish the ability to grow faster when conditions – water temperature and food -- permit. That distinguishes it from its wild counterpart.”

GE salmon’s actual rate of growth?

“If you look at growth curves, depending on where you pick it, the growth rate can be six to 10 times faster.

“The idea, though, is that this fish grows more rapidly in the first year of life. That translates to a fish that reaches market-weight in approximately half the time.

“Normal, or unmodified, Atlantic salmon grow very, very slowly for the first two years of life. Beyond that period, the growth rates (of the GE and wild salmon) are very similar.”

So, you cut the production time by half. What does that mean in terms of feed? Does it take the same amount of feed to raise a GE salmon as it does a wild salmon to reach the same size?

“Our fish is a little more efficient so it takes less feed to reach the same weight. It isn’t 50 percent but our fish probably (requires) 10 to 20 percent (less), depending on the numbers you use. (That) comes from published studies from a variety of sources, including ourselves.

“Our fish have greater feed efficiency. That’s typical of what you see in animals with higher levels of growth.”

You mentioned temperatures are important. How far south can these GE salmon be raised and still be viable?

“Well, salmon are cold-water fish.

“We grow them in Panama today where there’s a fairly tropical climate. But we’re growing them at about 3,000 feet altitude, which means there’s nice, cool water.

“For the GE salmon to grow at a maximum rate, the water temperature should be between 9 degrees and 15 degrees Celsius. With refrigeration or elevation, you can grow these fish economically.”

Safeguards

On a chromosomal safeguard in case GE salmon somehow reach the wild…

“We use a process that’s quite common in the industry. It’s used in a variety of fish and even mollusks and crustaceans.

“You can produce triploids, which carry an extra set of chromosomes. The triploids are infertile and unable to breed.

“We actually do two things. First, we produce all female fish – something possible with fish, amphibians and shellfish but not in other species. Second, all those females are all triploids.

“The reason we did that is because we realized there would be a lot of controversy associated with this fish. That’s even though many environmental experts have said our fish – even if was deliberately released and even if it weren’t infertile -- represents less of a risk to wild populations than existing practices. Despite that, we are aware that people fear things that are new and environmental activists and opponents of the technology would seize on this as an issue to try to discredit us.

“We offered the FDA – and they basically accepted our proposal – that we’d produce all female, sterile fish. And because our fish alter the economics of production, they can be raised in land-based systems. That means we’ve virtually eliminated any possibility of interactions with wild populations.

“It’s sort of a belt-and-suspender approach to anticipate and address all of the concerns.”

On reactions of critics…

“Surprisingly, that hasn’t had much of an impact on the anti-technology, environmental activist community. They’ve continued to level the same charges and make up stories about us that simply aren’t true.

“We’re hoping the average citizen will appreciate that the company has gone to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate this isn’t just a product that helps production -- and can create jobs and industry here in the United States -- but is also safe for the environment."

Are these fish raised in the hatchery/long concrete trenches people are used to seeing?

“Yes, it’s very similar. Ours is a bit fancier because it’s also a research operation. We also operate at a much higher level of bio-security than a typical hatchery.”

Other GE animals?

Other GE fish or animals your company is working with?

“Our specialty is aquaculture. Fish are among the most efficient converters of feed-to-food in the animal kingdom – even more than poultry, for instance. They’re also fairly easy to produce.

“We think seafood is a healthy source of high-quality protein. And with salmon you get the bonus of high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, as well.

“We’ve looked at other (fish) and can do the same thing in things like trout, tilapia, sea bass, sea bream and other finned fish to improve efficiency.

“The reason we think this is important is aquaculture is growing about 10 percent per year as seafood consumption is growing. And the world population is also growing.

“The U.S. (aquaculture) industry is fairly small: catfish and trout. The United States imports most of its fish and, in fact, all of its salmon. We see this as an opportunity to help meet our food security needs in an environmentally-sustainable way.  

“Even qualities like disease resistance, taste and other properties are amenable to molecular-based approaches. There’s a huge opportunity here.”

I’m wondering about cost-benefit of GE fish in terms of the depletion of ocean fish stocks. How cheap are these fish to raise, right now?

“The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN writes reports every year, as do other agencies. They show that wild-caught fisheries have been at about 90 million tons for about the last 20 years.”

FAO fisheries information here

“Many of the important economic food species of fish are over-fished and some are threatened. Some groups talk about the possibility of extinction because the fish are so overfished that the breeding populations are below the level needed to sustain the species.

“That’s a reality – not public relations. There’s general agreement that overfishing is a fact of life and the fisheries have to be better managed.

 “It’s also a fact that world consumption of seafood is increasing. And seafood is a fairly economical and cost-effective to provide a high-quality protein.

“For a world population that will reach 9 billion people in, roughly, 20 years, many emerging middle-class economies like those in India and China are demanding more proteins. There must be a way to meet that need. Obviously, overfishing the oceans is not the answer as it’s a diminishing return.

“Well, we can cultivate fish economically. We can grow fish in land-based systems at a cost that’s competitive with the existing industry. And the cost to farmers could drop even further based on adoption rates and expansion of the practice.

“Most importantly, we could grow these fish closer to major population centers. That would reduce transportation costs and the carbon footprint associated with it. Currently, transportation costs add as much a $1 per kilo to the salmon produced.

“The ability of aquaculture is pretty well established. That’s why groups like USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) – which enunciated an aquaculture policy this year – see this as a major opportunity growing needs for global food security.”

Feed, farms and the approval process

On using different feeds…

“Particularly in the soybean industry there’s been a lot of progress in the last five years.

“A lot of aquaculture detractors complain about fish meal and fish oil that has to go into diets. Well, there have been dramatic reductions based on nutritional advances made in the feed industry using alternative feedstuffs.

“Again, that’s good for the United States because those are all feed crops we produce very efficiently.”

Have you actually raised these fish in a typical farm setting yet?

“Yes, with physical containment. It’s very similar to the way we raise trout – in ponds or raceways. Those kinds of systems can be adapted fairly readily to containment to account for your fish.

“Yes, we’ve raised (the GE salmon) there. Yes, they taste good, they grow fast and they’re fairly efficient.

“One of the reasons we have the Panama farm is we had to demonstrate to the FDA that these (GE salmon) would do exactly what we said they would (under) all FDA requirements for approval.”

On where the government approval process is…

“There was a public meeting in September of 2010 where the results of our (environmental assessment) and FDA conclusions were published. The FDA decided our application was approvable, that our fish was equivalent to traditional food, that it is safe for the animal, the consumer and the environment.

“We fulfilled our requirements and nothing has happened (since). We’re very interested in this moving forward and have been concerned that it hasn’t.”

Anything critics are saying that you want to kick back against?

“Our data is public and has been released by the FDA. All the information supporting our application is out there. Independent scientists have reviewed it and said this is a technology that adds value and can, potentially, help address problems we face.

“The people that don’t like us also don’t like GM crops, don’t like ag technology, don’t like a lot of things. They oppose us without offering alternative solutions.

“If you’re really concerned about this, look into the facts. A lot of stuff being said about (GE salmon) simply isn’t true. Public information is available to show it isn’t true. You don’t have to trust us – find out for yourself.

“We’ve gone the high road, here. We’ve been transparent and disclosed all our information. We’ve been subject to a lot of untrue, unfair attacks by people who oppose us simply because they don’t agree with us. That’s fundamentally wrong.”

Anything else?

“Bottom line, this is a product that’s timely and meets a need. And, frankly, it’s good for America.”