Here in Albany, Indiana, a town of roughly 2,000 just a few miles from Muncie, the roads are flanked by fields of genetically modified corn and soybeans. Albany isn’t unique in this regard. More than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans in America are GMO commodities. However, one farm in Albany stands out. In fact, there’s no other agricultural operation in America like it.
AquaBounty Farms of Indiana is a land-based fish farm designed to raise the revolutionary AquAdvantage salmon. Scientists created the fish in the 1980s by inserting a Chinook salmon growth-hormone gene into an Atlantic salmon, adding a DNA sequence from an eel-like ocean pout to activate it. The result is an Atlantic salmon that grows to market size twice as fast as a conventional one.
After a tortuous 25-year regulatory journey, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption in 2015, making it the first genetically modified animal ever to receive the distinction. For AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, the approval was cause for celebration. After spending decades and millions of dollars fighting for the right to sell their product, they could finally bring it to market. They purchased the Albany farm in 2017 hoping to make it a historic site: the birthplace of America’s first GMO food animal.
The champagne, however, remained corked. As it turned out, not all Americans were eager to embrace a genetically engineered fish. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, whose constituency includes that state’s $4 billion salmon industry, emerged as one of its most strident opponents. Murkowski has long enjoyed the Alaskan salmon industry’s support, and it was understandable for her to go to bat for them. Murkowski claimed the issue wasn’t one of money, but of health and environmental safety. Joining several activist environmental groups, she expressed concerns about the fish’s suitability as food. (“I don’t even know if I want to call it a fish,” she said.) After the FDA approved it, she slipped a rider into a spending bill blocking the sale of the salmon in the U.S. until labeling guidelines for bioengineered food animals could be established.
AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotish dismisses claims that his fish is unsafe, pointing out that it has undergone “two of the most rigorous scientific reviews in history” by the FDA and Canada’s ministry of public health. Last summer, AquaBounty petitioned the FDA to allow it to label its salmon voluntarily and move forward. More than three years after receiving FDA approval, though, the AquAdvantage salmon continues to swim upstream against a current of opposition. “This is the worst of American politics,” Stotish says of Murkowski’s power play. “It’s the brass-knuckles, smash-mouth corruption people are complaining about in Washington.”
Senator Murkowski certainly has a vested interest in protecting her state’s annual 1 million–pound harvest of salmon from competition. But the 1,500 pounds the Indiana facility could initially produce would amount to a drop in the ocean. According to Paul Greenberg—best-selling author of Four Fish—it’s the long-term potential of genetically engineered fish that’s the threat. The FDA’s approval of AquaBounty’s salmon could open the floodgates to a sea of bioengineered competitors. Polls indicate that most consumers don’t want to eat GMO fish, but without clear labeling, Greenberg thinks they’ll buy it anyway. “In Murkowski’s defense, most consumers aren’t very fine-scale when judging a product,” he says. “You’d be surprised at how many people can’t parse farmed and wild salmon. But everybody’s ears prick up when they hear GMO.”
Given her voting record, Murkowski and environmental groups like Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Friends of the Earth make unlikely allies. On most issues—such as the Republican’s interest in opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling—they are diametrically opposed. But in AquaBounty, they have found a common enemy. While Murkowski has used her legislative power to temporarily stymie AquaBounty’s efforts, anti-GMO groups have employed activism and litigation. Friends of the Earth led a letter-writing campaign that convinced nearly every major North American grocery store to publicly reject AquAdvantage salmon—an effort that Stotish equates to “extortion.” “They went to Costco and boycotted its Seattle headquarters because Costco didn’t respond to their letter,” he says. “But we talked to Costco, and they said, ‘We like your sustainability attributes, and we like the fact that you raise fish without antibiotics.’” Based on those behind-the-scenes conversations and his enduring faith in the free marketplace, Stotish believes Costco will come around once the salmon is actually available. But CFS’s legal team is working overtime to make sure that never happens.
Along with 10 other plaintiffs—including various environmental and fishing-industry groups—CFS has filed a lawsuit claiming that the FDA lacked the authority to approve the GMO fish in the first place. Since no regulatory body exists specifically to regulate GMO food animals, the FDA approved it as an animal drug. CFS attorney Amy van Saun sees this as a big problem. “It’s not a drug,” she says. “They are fitting a square peg into a round hole.” In a May 2018 statement, Murkowski also took issue with the FDA’s makeshift approval process, calling it “frightening and appalling.” Murkowski wrote that “the genetically modified salmon could potentially devastate our country’s wild populations of salmon and desolate our fisheries.”
That’s one of the most popular lines of arguments against the fish: What might happen if it escapes? Or, if you’re talking to Friends of the Earth’s Dana Perls, when it escapes. Perls says escape is “inevitable” due to “natural disasters or human negligence.” Even in landlocked Indiana, there’s no telling the havoc it might wreak in the wild. “It could mate with the local brown trout,” Perls says. “That would have significant implications for local ecosystems.”
The folks at AquaBounty think that’s absurd. At the behest of the FDA, they spent years making their Albany facility a maximum-security fish prison. According to technical manager Peter Bowyer, the facility has “a minimum of six physical barriers along the line of any given route that a fish could potentially escape.” Additionally, AquAdvantage salmon are all sterile females. While up to 5 percent of the fish could conceivably reach sexual maturity, the FDA found the likelihood of the fish escaping and mating in the wild to be “negligibly small.”
If you’re not afraid of what the AquAdvantage fish could do to the environment, activists say you should at least fear what it could do to your body. In particular, CFS has raised concerns about elevated levels of the growth hormone IGF1 in the salmon. Some studies have suggested too much of the hormone could be carcinogenic—although the FDA reported that the levels found in the fish “were so low that they were below the limit the assay could measure.”
For the layperson, evaluating these competing claims can be overwhelming. Unless you’re equipped with the scientific training to weigh the merits of each argument, it comes down to a matter of trust. Do you trust the FDA, which has determined that the fish is as safe as a normal Atlantic salmon? Or do you, like Perls, believe that the FDA made their approval based on “weak data,” and that “the current regulatory system is antiquated and needs a complete overhaul?”
James Murray, chairman of the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, has an opinion on the issue. “The health risk associated with this fish is a nothing burger,” he says.
Murray has been working on bioengineering projects of his own since the 1980s. He created genetically engineered goats that carry the gene for lysozyme, an antibacterial enzyme that could help fight deadly diarrheal illnesses in developing countries. According to Murray, the regulatory process for bioengineered animals can be prohibitively expensive.
“When AquaBounty applied for permits, I said, ‘Thank God,’ because I didn’t want to be first,” he says. “All of us who do transgenic animals are really appreciative of their efforts. It gives you hope that one day there will be a path.”
Murray speaks ruefully about how the scientific community has allowed activists and politicians to control the narrative on a technology he believes has the power to address a litany of problems, from hunger to agricultural woes caused by climate change. In his view, genetically modified food animals have the potential to change the world. “We allowed them to define the terms of the argument,” he says of the opposition, “and they are unconstrained by facts or truth.”
Inside AquaBounty’s Albany farm, roughly 150,000 conventional, non-bioengineered salmon currently swim in large, cylindrical tanks. A state-of-the-art plumbing-and-filtering system allows the facility to recirculate 95 percent of its water. It’s a fascinating system—and an expensive one. AquaBounty purchased it for $14 million, and spent another several million improving it. While the ordinary salmon may help pay some of the bills for now, one can’t help but wonder: How long can the company afford to wait for the FDA to lift its temporary ban on AquaBounty’s most important fish?
It’s a frustrating predicament for Aqua-Bounty. But money problems are part and parcel of pioneering a controversial product. The business has been unstable financially for years. AquaBounty’s net losses went from $4.1 million in the first half of 2017 to $5.2 million in the first half of 2018. It blamed the increased losses partly on the expenses associated with its Albany farm.
AquaBounty is starting to see some profit in Canada, thanks to that country’s approval of AquAdvantage salmon last year. The company sold five tons of the fish produced there in 2017, and Stotish says “the distributors we sold to were very happy with it.” Not so happy are the activists who believe the fish sold in Canada should be have at least been labeled as bioengineered. Canadian law doesn’t currently require labeling of such food products, and AquaBounty chose not to label the fish voluntarily. This means the salmon probably ended up on the plates of people who had no idea that they were eating a genetically modified animal.
Stotish insists that once AquaBounty starts voluntarily labeling its fish in the U.S., it will do the same in Canada. “We feel it’s important to be consistent in our programs, and not expose our product to false criticisms that we are somehow misleading consumers,” he says. Does the fact that polls consistently show that customers don’t want to eat GMO fish give him pause? Not at all. “I believe the majority of consumers make purchasing decisions based upon price and quality,” he says. “We know we have a product of superior quality and superior sustainability qualities, and only wish the opportunity to allow consumers to decide for themselves.”