AquaBounty hopes to have its transgenic fish in Canadian markets by early 2021 (Photograph by Alexi Hobbs)
In summer 2017, somewhere in Canada, an unsuspecting diner became the first person in history to purchase, prepare and consume a genetically engineered animal. They likely had no idea of their barrier-breaking place in culinary history—the Atlantic salmon fillet they enjoyed was, in texture, flavour and appearance, indistinguishable from any other. The only hint of anything unusual was the import declaration accompanying the fish to Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport: The salmon originated from a small research facility in Panama, owned by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies.
The shipment was less than five metric tons, little more than a test run. But it was a milestone for AquaBounty: the first-ever consumer sale for the then-26-year-old company, whose roots lie north of the border. AquaBounty’s “broodstock”—the common ancestors of today’s gene-altered fish—was created in a laboratory at Newfoundland’s Memorial University in 1989, and its still-active first hatchery operates in a tiny town at the eastern edge of Prince Edward Island. Canadian governments, along with biotech giants and one Soviet oligarch, have bankrolled it to the tune of millions, for everything from R&D to hatchery expansions.
For decades, AquaBounty has been one of the main protagonists—or antagonists, depending on your point of view—in an intense battle between advocates and opponents of genetically engineered food. The fight has focused on its “transgenic” AquAdvantage salmon, which combines genetic elements from chinook salmon and ocean pout, and which grows to market size, about five kilograms, in as little as 18 months instead of the usual 28 to 36 for conventional Atlantic salmon grown in sea cages.
“I like to classify AquaBounty as a 30-year-old startup that’s been living hand to mouth,” says CEO Sylvia Wulf, “thanks to a committed group of people that believe in the technology, and investors who have continued to invest even with the challenges we’ve faced.”
Those challenges include lawsuits and protests from anti-GMO activists, constant financial precarity and a 20-year regulatory process with the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company is positioning itself as a food-security game-changer, pumping out some of the world’s healthiest protein in half the time nature can manage and reducing pressure on over-stressed wild fish stocks. Critics contend it’s an ecological disaster in the making, should GMO fish ever escape into the wild.
“Biotechnology in food has arrived without any real social consent from consumers”
Today, after three decades, 14 generations of transgenic salmon and nearly $130 million in cash burn, AquaBounty is gearing up for its American debut. With a new farm in Indiana that will produce up to 1,200 metric tons of salmon per year, the company hopes to have transgenic fish in select U.S. markets by Christmas, and Canadian markets by early 2021.
It will be one of the biggest gambles in the history of commercial food production. In the past few years, study after study has shown consumers are cautious or confused about GMO food: A 2017 poll by Angus Reid found that while 39 per cent of Canadians thought they were safe, the remainder were unsure or felt they weren’t. An Ipsos-Reid poll conducted in 2015 found that two-thirds of Canadians would eat GMO foods, but only if they were clearly labelled. (In reality, we’ve all eaten them—it’s hard to find a processed food product without some GMO component. Most corn is genetically modified, for example, so almost anything containing corn syrup, from Coca-Cola to granola bars, is a GMO. And labelling isn’t required in Canada.) A 2018 study by Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, found similar results.
“There’s a lack of transparency across the board in the industry,” Charlebois says. “That means ordinary consumers don’t really understand what genetic engineering is all about.” In part, he says that mistrust is the fault of food producers who are wary of calling attention to GMO products at all. And while plant-based products are one thing, he says, “animals make for a whole other layer of complexity. I’m not convinced the market is ready.”
Food retailers seem to be hedging their bets on AquaBounty’s commercial prospects. In 2017, a Canadian anti-GMO advocacy group asked major Canadian supermarket chains—including Sobeys, Loblaws, Metro and Walmart—if they would stock AquaBounty’s products. All declared they didn’t intend to. (Though most left the door open for a change of heart, with wording such as “at this time” or “currently have no plans.”)
Garth Fletcher, the Memorial University ocean scientist whose work produced the very first AquAdvantage salmon, has waited half his professional life for this moment. He’s optimistic that 2020 will be AquaBounty’s big year. But, he acknowledges, “the real hurdle now is the marketplace.”
Salmon eggs (Photograph by Alexi Hobbs)
From corn and soybean to apples and potatoes, GMO crops have been a staple of developed-world diets for decades. Anti-GMO advocates have often raised the prospect that GMO foods pose greater risks for cancer or allergies, though these concerns have mostly been put to bed by major health authorities including the FDA, Health Canada and the World Health Organization.
But the controversy that GMO animal projects have stirred up goes far beyond that directed at any gene-altered soybean. According to Andreas Boecker, chair of the University of Guelph’s department of food, agricultural and resource economics, the reason is simple: Animals seem more like us. We give them names, keep them as pets, and at a genetic level, they’re closer to our kin than a potato or an ear of corn. That “genetic proximity,” says Boecker, “increases the yuck factor.”
The yuck factor may well explain the fate of a project created by other researchers at Boecker’s university: the Enviropig. Possibly the most famous GMO animal in Canadian history besides the AquAdvantage salmon, the modified swine digested cereal grains more effectively, reducing phosphorus in manure. (Phosphorous was linked to algae blooms in bodies of water near pig farms—hence, Enviropig.)
That project became a major flashpoint in the battle between GMO advocates and opponents, who tarred the pigs as “Frankenswine.” Unable to find a commercial partner willing to brave the market, the researchers eventually conceded defeat, slaughtering the 10 remaining Enviropigs in 2012.
But the golden age of transgenic-animal research dates all the way back to 1980, when scientists at Yale University first implanted DNA from the herpes virus into mice.
“Then it was easy for people to say, ‘Why don’t I try that with my favourite animal?’ ” says Eric Hallerman, a professor of fish conservation at Virginia Tech who was part of a Minnesota-based research team working on its own transgenic fish experiments in the 1980s.
That was more or less what Fletcher thought in 1982, when he and two colleagues—biochemists Choy Hew and Peter Davies—began working on transgenic “antifreeze” salmon, which could be cultivated in Newfoundland’s frigid inshore waters. An energetic 84-year-old, Fletcher can be found most days in his laboratory at Memorial’s Ocean Sciences Centre, where he’s been director for 11 years. Fletcher, a transplanted Scot with an ebullient personality and an unruly tuft of snow-white hair, joined Memorial in 1971, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that he began the work for which he’s become famous.
The idea was to take genes from winter flounder, which thrive in cold conditions thanks to a protein in their blood that binds to ice crystals, and transfer them to salmon eggs. In 1984, researchers at China’s Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan beat Fletcher’s team to creating the world’s first transgenic fish. But Fletcher and company were close behind, and in the following year they inserted the antifreeze gene into salmon eggs. The gene transfer was successful—the traits were passed down to subsequent generations. They had altered the species’ genetic destiny.
Showing genetic permanence was only the first part of the battle, however. “We were all optimistic,” says Fletcher, “that it would go a lot faster than it did.”
Tanks containing newly hatched fish at AquaBounty’s Indiana facility (Photograph by Alexi Hobbs)
Yuck factor aside, there are plenty of genuine uncertainties surrounding AquaBounty and similar projects. In the early ’90s, Hallerman and a colleague named Anne Kapuscinski began raising questions about the ecological implications of transgenic fish. “Anne and I were outliers,” says Hallerman. “With backgrounds in fish biology and conservation, we saw that if these fish escaped and interbred in the wild, there would be issues.”
AquaBounty’s salmon are rendered sterile thanks to a process that creates a condition called triploidy (they have three chromosome sets, instead of two), a procedure that is 99.8 per cent effective. As an added containment measure, all the AquaBounty salmon are female. Still, if GMO fish managed to reach a natural Atlantic salmon habitat, just a handful of fertile fish could conceivably interfere with the wild populations.
AquaBounty eventually asked Hallerman to conduct an unpaid risk assessment, which became the basis for containment measures on P.E.I., Indiana and a small research facility in the Panamanian highlands that the company opened in 2008 to incubate and hatch P.E.I.-fertilized eggs. (The Panama farm, which served the same purpose as the new Indiana facility, closed in 2019.)
Hallerman also advised the FDA on public hearings in 2010, which ended with the authority concluding that the salmon was safe to eat—though it held off on approval. Instead, it convened a special meeting of a committee of veterinary medicine experts and invited several fish genetics experts to provide feedback.
Anne Kapuscinski spoke at the meeting, and her response was unequivocal: While the salmon is probably safe—and AquaBounty’s safeguards in P.E.I. and Panama probably adequate—the FDA had failed to address more far-reaching concerns for such a precedent-setting case.
“They kept saying, ‘Well, the conclusion is that these fish will be raised in a contained facility and it will be safe,’ ” recalls Kapuscinski, who in 1997 was honoured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for her work in promoting sound public policies on biotechnology and fish conservation. “That might be correct for [AquaBounty]…but I can imagine that if AquaBounty ends up being successful, this will stimulate other companies to do all kinds of things with aquatic organisms, and there’s no guarantee we’ll see transparency from them, or even know what they’re doing.”
The fish was finally approved for human consumption in 2015—though import restrictions on the GMO eggs, lifted last year, prevented the company from starting U.S. operations until last spring.
Lucy Sharratt is coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a pan-Canadian network of 16 organizations critical of genetic engineering of food. She takes a harder anti-GMO line than Kapuscinski. But her broader objection is to AquaBounty’s Canadian approval in 2016.
“There’s no consultation with the public,” she says, “no consultation with fisherfolk or farmers. They don’t look at the questions, ‘Do we need or want this technology?’ The regulatory system looks only at the question of safety and excludes those questions.”
In a statement, Health Canada responded that its assessment is based on “expert international consultation” spanning 20 years, with agencies including the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“A product that claims to be better for you or the environment may have an advantage”
Wulf’s “30-year-old startup” presents itself as a scrappy upstart, cobbling together money year to year and even quarter to quarter to stay afloat. In the past 29 years, AquaBounty has been the recipient of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grant money, loans from the government of P.E.I. and more than $3.7 million from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a federal agency that supports East Coast startups.
Private equity has played a role, too. In 2006, AquaBounty raised US$28 million from an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM).
But bigger cash injections have come from heavier hitters. Between 2010 and 2012, Kakha Bendukidze—a now-deceased Soviet oligarch, industrialist and billionaire—rescued the company from insolvency by investing nearly US$10 million in exchange for a 48 per cent stake. In 2012, he sold his stake to Intrexon (now Precigen, Inc.), a biopharmaceutical company then helmed by the billionaire American biotech entrepreneur Randal Kirk. Last year, another Kirk-controlled firm, TS AquaCulture, purchased Intrexon’s stake for US$21.6 million. That hasn’t kept AquaBounty entirely out of the woods: The company’s own financial reporting indicated in 2019 that it didn’t have enough money to operate beyond this June.
The company completed another capital raise in February, which Wulf says will provide funding through most of 2021, at which point it hopes to have revenue rolling in. The fish in Indiana will be ready for harvesting in October, and a smaller harvest on P.E.I. will be ready in the first quarter of 2021.
“This biotechnology in food has arrived without any sort of social consent provided by consumers,” says Dalhousie’s Charlebois. “It just happened, and that’s why we’ve seen this rebellion against GMOs in the past three decades.” Charlebois’s 2018 study of more than 1,000 Canadian consumers shows some glimmers of hope for AquaBounty: 65 per cent of respondents either believed GMO foods were safe or had no opinion. (It did find major regional discrepancies, however, with residents of Quebec and B.C. most opposed.)
It also found that younger respondents were less concerned about GMOs than older ones, and respondents of all ages ranked genetic modification well below other concerns, including nutrition, price, and hormones and antibiotics. “If you give a consumer a genetically modified fish and a conventional fish at the same price,” says Charlebois, “I expect they’ll buy the conventional. But what if the GMO is cheaper, or marketed as more environmentally friendly?”
Vanessa Matthijssen is a consumer products strategist with Deloitte in Australia whose clients include a panoply of food producers. She says that the surprise mass adoption of Beyond Meat and other plant-based foods in the past few years may suggest to retailers that niche markets can have broader appeal. “Sustainability and health are one of the most dominant things on people’s minds, and anything that claims to be better for you or the environment may have an advantage.”
That fits squarely in with AquaBounty’s messaging—besides relieving pressure on wild fish stocks, it stresses that its fast-growing fish consume less feed than conventional salmon.
In the U.S., AquaBounty will likely try to position its GMO provenance as a plus—it’s required by law to disclose bioengineered status on labels. In Canada, however, it will be able to choose whether to tout its GMO status, or slide quietly into the frozen seafood aisle with no labelling. Wulf says while the company may find an alternate way to communicate that its product is genetically engineered, it currently has no intent to label.
“Canadians are much more progressive and pragmatic,” says Wulf. “They’re just further ahead. We don’t have to label in Canada because Health Canada says it’s identical to Atlantic salmon.”
For now, AquaBounty remains a $130-million gamble. In 2012, when the Enviropig project came to its unceremonious end, lead researcher Cecil Forsberg told The New York Times that when he began that project in 1995, “I had the feeling [that] in seven or eight or nine years that transgenic animals probably would be acceptable. But I was wrong. It’s time to stop the program until the rest of the world catches up.”
So has the world caught up by now? AquaBounty will soon find out.
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