The company’s genetically-engineered Atlantic salmon has just made history by achieving U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for human consumption. But some major American supermarkets, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Target and Kroger, are already saying they will boycott the product.
As biotechnologies make their way to the supermarkets and our dinner plates, an increasing number of consumer and environmental groups are expressing concerns about the products and potential impact on the environment. Critics of the FDA approval have labelled the genetically-modified salmon “Frankenfish.”
Terms of the approval allow the fish to be produced in Prince Edward Island and Panama, and proper safeguards are required to prevent the salmon from escaping into the wild.
For now, GMO salmon can only be sold in the United States, but people are already speculating about when the salmon will be available in Canada.
There is little doubt that the genetically-modified organism (GMO) debate will heat up even more as the AquAdvantage salmon, developed by AquaBounty Technologies, begins appearing on the market sometime in 2018.
Five American states have held plebiscites on GMO labelling in recent years. The effort to force labelling lost in all votes, but the count was close on two occasions.
In Canada, the debate over biotechnology is not as obviously public. But some very well-organized interest groups have been, to some extent, effective in swaying public opinion against the technology. Aquaculture is controversial enough with its ecological effects and animal welfare concerns — now, genetic engineering has added an extra layer of polemic.
But no matter what we think of the technology, there is an interesting Canadian-based story behind AquaBounty. In 1989 at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Dr. Garth Fletcher and his staff discovered that genetic manipulation could significantly increase the growth rate of salmon.
Based on this discovery, the Massachusetts-based company’s sole focus since 1991 has been to get its GMO salmon approved.
But if you think this history-making biotech company is a massive enterprise similar to Monsanto, think again. The company has fewer than 20 employees, far short of the 20,000 who work for Monsanto.
During the research, AquaBounty has lost more than US$6 million a year and has accumulated debt of more than US$87 million. Clearly, some investors firmly believe in what AquaBounty is doing. Investors who have stuck with AquaBounty for the better part of 25 years are likely very pleased with the FDA’s investigation outcome.
From a farming perspective, the case for AquaBounty’s GMO salmon is very compelling. These fish can grow twice as fast as wild salmon. It also takes 25 per cent less food to produce one regular-sized fish. And the protein conversion rate is very high with salmon. This could help make the product more appealing to the masses, since salmon has undisputed nutritional values. And for consumers looking for alternatives to higher-priced beef and other meat, such an option could be more affordable.
The FDA claims that there are no biologically relevant differences in the nutritional profile of AquAdvantage salmon, compared with simple farm-raised salmon. But in a world where concerns about what we eat reign supreme, it will be important for AquaBounty to tell its story well. Monsanto is likely pleased to finally have someone else take flak over genetically-modified food. But AquaBounty can avoid becoming another Monsanto by taking its message to the public quickly, before consumers revolt.
Selling the technology to regulators was the easy part. Now, AquaBounty has bigger fish to fry: wary consumers.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.