On a winding road on the outskirts of a small Rust Belt town in eastern Indiana, a fish hatchery is poised to raise the country’s first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, altered the genetic makeup of the Atlantic salmon to include a gene from chinook salmon and DNA sequence from an eel-like species known as an ocean pout. The result is a salmon that grows to market size about twice as fast as its natural counterpart.
The company, which already breeds the salmon in Canada, expects its first batch of bioengineered eggs to arrive at its indoor facility in Albany, Ind., Wednesday, and the first salmon fillets raised there could appear in U.S. supermarkets in late 2020. AquaBounty’s decision to raise the salmon in Indiana is a landmark moment for the Midwest, a region known globally for its agricultural prowess but one where land-based fish farming operations have struggled mightily to become profitable.
AquaBounty purchased the complex about 10 miles northeast of Muncie where yellow perch and steelhead trout had previously been raised and renovated it for Atlantic salmon. Currently, the 16-person staff, which includes factory workers who were laid off in recent years, oversees around 100,000 conventional Atlantic salmon from eggs until they reach market size. That production is expected to grow once the bioengineered eggs arrive.
Commercially raising seafood, a process known as aquaculture, will be necessary to feed the planet’s growing population at a time when rising seafood demand is pitted against plateauing wild fisheries burdened by over-fishing, pollution and climate change, according to industry experts. The U.S., which imports over 90 percent of its seafood, has lagged behind much of the world in aquaculture production, and proponents hope the introduction of genetically engineered fish might help promote the industry, relieve pressure on ocean fisheries and scale back the United States’ $16 billion seafood trade deficit.
“Because this fish grows faster, you can use the same facility and produce twice as much product, and the overhead cost is halved,” said William Muir, a professor emeritus at Purdue University who has researched genetically modified animals. “That’s really where we’re going with it: Can we produce fish more cheaply? The fact is, aquaculture is expensive and it’s not competitive with ocean-caught fish, because the ocean is free. But if you can produce salmon cheaply inland, large urban centers like Chicago would love to have fresh salmon next door.”
However, some consumer groups remain fiercely opposed to the production and sale of genetically modified organisms. These organizations have been vocal crusaders against AquaBounty, pressuring many mainstream retailers into pledging they won’t carry the product they have maligned as “Frankenfish.”
“This is purely a commercial decision to make the fish grow faster,” said Megan Westgate, executive director of The Non-GMO Project, a Washington state-based nonprofit. ” They’ve succeeded in proving that desired trait. But there’s no benefit to the consumer or the environment. I think that’s why a lot of average people would rather eat salmon as nature intended.”
To date, there’s no scientific evidence concluding that genetically modified foods are harmful to human health. The FDA says AquaBounty salmon are as safe to eat as conventional salmon.
Muir, who studied the risks of the salmon being exposed to the wild population based on government data, said many of the fears surrounding GMO foods are overblown.
“These people who are anti-GMO are not data-driven, they are agenda-driven. And their agenda was to make sure a GMO product was never on a dinner plate,” he said.
However, one of the foremost complaints against AquaBounty has been transparency. In Canada, where the company sells conventional eggs and genetically modified salmon, it has sold tons of the fish, although it wouldn’t disclose to which retailers, and there are no requirements for labeling in that country.
After the genetically modified salmon was approved to be raised and sold in the U.S. in 2015, egg shipments were blocked until labeling guidelines were established, which allowed for the import ban to be lifted two months ago. Still, the U.S. labeling mandate won’t take effect until 2022, creating uncertainty about whether AquaBounty will voluntarily label its salmon in the interim.
AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf argues there’s no need for labeling in Canada because both wild and genetically modified salmon are the same nutritionally. But Westgate, of The Non-GMO Project, said a lack of disclosure robs consumers of choice.
“People should know what’s in their food,” Westgate said. “It’s a transgenic species, a combination of three fish. A lot of people just feel it’s unnatural, and it’s not fish they’d want to feed to their children.”
Common in crops
But gene-editing is nothing new in the U.S.
Since the 1990s, American farmers have cultivated genetically engineered crops to be resistant to pesticides and insects. While the pesticide-immune strains have come under fire for allowing farmers to use more insect- or weed-killing sprays that can cause soil contamination and kill off vital organisms like bumblebees, today, about 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically altered strains.
Experts say the progression to genetically engineering animals has been slower due to public perception and nascent federal instruction. While scientists have had the ability to retool genomes for decades, the FDA didn’t issue guidance on genetically engineered animals until 2008.
Since then, the agency has approved only a few animal-related bioengineering applications, including a genetically altered goat that produces a drug in its milk used to prevent a rare blood-clotting condition in humans. The agency also signed off on the entry of the “GloFish,” a pet zebrafish with a gene from a jellyfish that makes it glow under natural and ultraviolet light.
The AquaBounty salmon was initially developed in 1989 after Canadian scientists attempted to develop an Atlantic salmon that could withstand the country’s frigid temperatures. Incorporating a DNA sequence from an ocean pout, a species with antifreeze proteins in its blood that allows it to survive in near-freezing waters, researchers thought they could make a more cold-tolerant salmon.
The genetic medley was unsuccessful. But scientists found the antifreeze DNA sequence helped accelerate development when used in tandem with a growth hormone gene from chinook salmon. And subsequent research continued along those lines.
The salmon grows to roughly 10 pounds in 16 to 18 months, compared with as long as 32 months in the wild. While salmon already depend on much less food to grow than cattle, swine or chicken, the AquaBounty salmon requires 20 to 25 percent less feed than ordinary Atlantic salmon. The company’s Indiana facility features a recirculating water filtration system, which minimizes water use. And shipping salmon from Indiana to other U.S. cities within a 500-mile radius will have as much as a 25 times smaller carbon footprint compared with other major salmon importing routes (Norway to New York and Chile to Miami).
Pete Bowyer, farm manager of the Indiana facility, said these kinds of operations make sense environmentally and business-wise, especially considering salmon is a perennially popular seafood choice in the United States, along with shrimp and tuna.
“The thing about recirculating aquaculture is that you are not really constrained by climate or topography, which traditionally fish farming has been,” Bowyer said.
In 2017, over 356,000 tons of salmon were imported to the U.S. with a value of $3.5 billion.
“It’s produced in Chile, Norway and Scotland. It’s absurd. In my personal opinion, this is the direction that the U.S. is headed in,” Bowyer continued as he walked into the hatchery sporting waterproof boots and waders.
‘GMO is scary’
Still, not everyone is convinced. Not long after AquaBounty salmon was approved in 2015, Costco Wholesale Corp., one of the largest retailers in the world, announced it had no intention of selling the AquaBounty salmon after backlash during public hearings from consumers. The corporation joined dozens of U.S. supermarket chains that have vowed not to sell GMO salmon, according to anti-GMO nonprofit Center for Food Safety.
“I think public perception in the U.S. is that GMO is scary,” said Tomas Hook, director of the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. “I think it’s a pledge that is intended to placate some of the public and people who are anti-GMO. At the surface, it might seem scary to eat genetically modified foods, but when it comes to the way AquaBounty produces salmon, in a lot of ways, it’s more environmentally friendly than the way we traditionally produce salmon.”
Seafood is the most popular meat in the world, with global consumption surpassing all land animals combined. But while cows, pigs and chickens have been raised on farms for ages, fish have been largely wild-caught for human consumption, as aquaculture didn’t become a significant contributor to the seafood market until the latter part of the 20th century.
Experts say the time is now to bring aquaculture into the mainstream. In 2015, 93 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks were categorized as overfished or fished at peak sustainable levels. Meanwhile, the global population is projected to rise to over 9 billion by midcentury, and ocean productivity is expected to decline as rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere create warmer and more acidic waters.
“If you look at the trajectory of fishery harvests around the world, we see a big increase after World War II through the 1970s, as new technologies, particularly in oceans, have helped us get better at catching fish,” Hook said. “But sometime around the late 1990s, early 2000s, even though we have all these fishing fleets and technology, we basically saw a plateau and decline in fishery harvest. That’s despite a growing population and more people on planet Earth that need protein from fish. The solution that we need to feed people is in aquaculture.”
Aquaculture had largely taken place in coastal areas where fish were raised in open water pens. But that approach has declined as regulators cracked down on these operations because they created hot spots for animal waste that caused deterioration in water conditions. Businesses have tried to move inland where waste can be treated more effectively, but the upfront investments have been a deterrent.
In 2011, Illinois had more than 100 licensed aquaculture operations, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. As of this month, only 45 enterprises are in business.
AquaBounty hopes to buck this trend in Indiana. While the company has persistently recorded net losses on its quarterly reports in recent years, the arrival of the GMO salmon could significantly bolster production at that site, helping to improve the balance sheet.
CEO Wulf said the company may sell its patented and trademarked salmon to other fish farms.
AquaBounty embarked on the arduous journey toward regulatory approval in 1995. Two decades later, the FDA determined the fish was safe to eat and the modifications were safe for the fish itself.
Although the FDA also found the fish posed no significant threat to the environment, there were concerns early on about the possible impacts if it escaped into open waters. Muir, the Purdue professor, theorized that if the fish were ever to breed in the wild, it could spell doom for salmon populations because of the so-called Trojan gene effect.
“If you are a female and are looking for the male that’s the most fit, one of the most obvious signs is size,” Muir said. “If you’re a big male, you must have survived, you must have been able to get food and have all the good genes. But in the case of transgenic salmon, I hypothesized this was false advertising. It was big, but not because it had the good genes or that it could find a lot of food. It’s big because of the transgene, and it actually has lower fitness than the wild type. So females would be mating with less fit males and it would perpetuate fewer offspring to maturity.”
Upon further testing, however, those initial worries were assuaged when the genetically altered salmon proved to be an ineffective breeder, according to Muir.
“It turned out the fish was not at all dangerous because it didn’t have any mating advantage,” Muir said. “In fact, it had a lot of disadvantages. It was very, very difficult to keep alive because it doesn’t have any of the natural mating dances or attraction that the fish have. Like birds, when they’re mating, males have to have a certain display and dance, because the female has to choose wisely. The transgenic male is too fat or heavy, and it doesn’t court them very well and loses out on all the mating.”
Precautions are also in place. All of AquaBounty’s facilities have a number of measures intended to prevent the escape of eggs and fish, including metal screens and jump nets installed on tanks. And the FDA bans the genetically altered salmon from being raised in ocean net pens.
The company also employs a breeding technique in which only female fish are produced, and the fertilized eggs are also pressure-shocked to make them sterile.
So far, there hasn’t seemed to be an issue. In addition to its new breed of salmon, AquaBounty was recently authorized to sell genetically altered tilapia in Argentina.
While the salmon will be the first animal of its kind in the United States, experts like Muir said it’d be foolish to think it will be the last.
“The thought was that once (FDA approval) went through, it would open the gates to other transgenic animals to come to market,” Muir said. “In my opinion, we’re way overdue.”
This story was edited to clarify that shipping salmon from Indiana to other U.S. cities within a 500-mile radius will have as much as a 25 times smaller carbon footprint compared with other major salmon importing routes (Norway to New York and Chile to Miami). An earlier version of the article misstated the amount of salmon AquaBounty has sold in Canada. It sold several tons in 2017.