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Future of Food: This genetically engineered salmon may hit U.S. markets as early as 2020

People are eating more fish than ever, and a third of global stocks are threatened by overfishing. A small company says its genetically engineered salmon can help meet the demand, as critics say it’s a step in the wrong direction. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports on the GE salmon. This story is part of our "Future of Food" series, hosted by Mark Bittman and supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tonight we launch PBS NewsHour Weekend special series, "The Future of Food." Over the coming months, we'll focus on stories around the world where efforts to fight food scarcity and waste are ongoing. Here's author Mark Bittman to introduce our first story in the series on the debate over genetically modified salmon.

  • Mark Bittman:

    Fish is an important protein source for many people around the world, and we are eating more of it than ever before. And with one-third of the world's stocks overfished, aquaculture has taken off – tripling production in the last twenty years. Yet to date, fish farming has struggled with environmental problems just like land-based farming has. One small company is producing a genetically engineered salmon it says could help solve some of these problems and help meet the world's demand. Others say it's a dangerous step in the wrong direction. Megan Thompson has more.

  • Megan Thompson:

    If you fly to the tiny province of Prince Edward Island on Canada's eastern coast, then drive about an hour east out of the capital city, you'll finally come to a small, unmarked building guarded by a chain-link fence. There's nothing special about it outside. But inside is another story.

    These tanks contain the only genetically engineered animal in the world that's been deemed safe to eat: Atlantic salmon modified to grow faster.

  • Ron Stotish:

    Using new technology is an intelligent way to meet the global food security needs of the future.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Ron Stotish is chief technology officer of Aquabounty, the company producing the genetically engineered – or "GE" – salmon.

  • Ron Stotish:

    We're going to run out of land, and run out of water to do what we're continuing to do, unless we find a better way to do it.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It's a relatively small operation making big waves. 50 Employees at 3 facilities in Canada and the U.S., breeding, hatching and growing the salmon trademarked "aquadvantage."

    They hope to have it on the American market next year. It will be the final step in a long process that began in another part of Canada.

    The story of genetically engineered salmon began nearly three decades ago, here in Newfoundland, Canada, at Memorial University's ocean sciences center, one of the world's leading marine research labs.

    In the 1980's, physiologist Garth Fletcher and his colleagues started reading about the first work being done to create a genetically modified mouse.

  • Garth Fletcher:

    We said, well if they can do that in mice, maybe we can do that in fish.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Fletcher came up with the idea of altering Atlantic salmon DNA to get the fish to grow more quickly.

  • Garth Fletcher:

    Because behind every production system is an accountant that says are we making any money, can we produce the fish faster, can we turn the inventory over, type idea.

  • Megan Thompson:

    A salmon's growth hormones are more active during certain times of the year. Fletcher thought, what if he could get the hormones to stay active all the time?

    He took DNA from a fish called an ocean pout, which produces a special protein all year long that helps it survive in frigid waters.

    Fletcher took the DNA that keeps those proteins turned on and running and connected it to a salmon growth hormone gene, which had the effect of keeping the growth hormone on.

  • Garth Fletcher:

    Now it's free to run summer and winter if you wish. All year round.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Fletcher inserted the gene into his salmon eggs and waited to see what would happen.

  • Garth Fletcher:

    So in the spring of 1990 we saw some big ones. So we said 'oh, maybe it's that.'

  • Megan Thompson:

    So you could see these fish were bigger?

  • Garth Fletcher:

    Yes, much bigger than the other ones.

  • Megan Thompson:

    As scientists, seeing that what you're doing is working, what does that feel like?

  • Garth Fletcher:

    Well we were just amazed, right.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Fletcher patented his technology and started a company, which eventually became Aquabounty. His invention is still the center of its work, a genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as regular salmon. While actually consuming less feed.

    The difference is significant: these fish are both about 2 years old.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It's really hard to believe that these salmon are the same age and there's such a huge size difference between the two of them.

  • Ron Stotish:

    This fish is 5 kilos, ready for market. That fish is a long ways from market.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In the United States, the majority of the salmon consumed is Atlantic salmon, but almost all of it is imported from ocean farms in Chile, Norway and Canada.

    That's because, in the U.S., wild Atlantic salmon is endangered, so catching it is illegal. Ocean farming is only permitted in a few places and until recently, there wasn't much interest in expensive, land-based production like Aquabounty's.

  • Ron Stotish:

    If you have a fish that grows a little faster, such as an Aquadvantage that reaches market weight in half the time, you can produce those fish almost anywhere because you can grow them in a land-based aquaculture facility.

    Closer to consumers.

    So you can reduce the transportation cost, you can reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation.

    So this opens up a whole new opportunity for global salmon production.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Ron Stotish talks of producing Atlantic salmon in places it's never been done before – like Indiana, where Aquabounty has set up its first American facility.

  • Ron Stotish:

    This is a hot smoked salmon preparation from a roughly 5 kilo Aquadvantage salmon.

  • Megan Thompson:

    He gave me a taste of the product.

    Ron Stotish and Megan Thompson: It's delicious. It's very good.

  • Megan Thompson:

    I think some people might think that this would taste somehow different than non-genetically modified salmon, but it tastes exactly the same.

  • Ron Stotish:

    It's exactly the same.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Aquabounty first applied for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1995.

    While it's been regulating genetically modified plants for more than 25 years, the FDA had never approved a genetically engineered animal as food before. And so it took them two decades to make a decision.

    And, there was stiff opposition – protesters sent nearly 2 million comments to the FDA and nearly 80 retailers vowed not to sell it.

    Despite the concern, in 2015, the FDA approved Aquadvantage salmon, saying the product is "safe to eat," "has no significant impact on the environment" and it found "no biologically relevant differences" between GE salmon and other farm-raised salmon.

    The next year the Canadian government gave the salmon its stamp of approval, and Aquabounty hit the market there first, since selling a modest 20,000 pounds of its product. Canadian opponents remain outraged.

  • Sharon Labchuk:

    Do we have the right to manipulate the DNA of another living being, and I don't agree that that's something that humans should be able to do.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Sharon Labchuk, of the environmental group Earth action, has helped lead the fight against GE salmon in Canada for decades. She says no one can predict what will happen when people start eating the fish over an extended period of time.

  • Sharon Labchuk:

    We've had, say, 20 years or so experience in Canada of genetically engineered plant foods, and we really don't know what are the health effects.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So far, Aquabounty has sold its salmon to distributors, and the company says it doesn't know where it ended up after that. There's no requirement that restaurants or food services label g.e. salmon. And there's no requirement it be labeled in Canadian stores, either.

  • Sharon Labchuk:

    People should have the right to have their fish labeled. And they should have a right to know whether they're eating genetically modified salmon.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And if it does end up being distributed in a store like this?

  • Sharon Labchuk:

    Nobody will know. There's no idea.

  • Megan Thompson:

    It is a fact that somebody could be eating your product, and they wouldn't know it. Why not just label it so people know what they're eating?

  • Ron Stotish:

    As a small company, with your first offering, with a limited quantity, there's a huge risk associated with just putting a label, genetically modified, genetically engineered, on it. If it's identical to the traditional food, why put a label on it?

  • Megan Thompson:

    But its DNA has been altered.

  • Ron Stotish:

    It's the same proteins, the same food that you've been consuming forever.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But not everyone thinks it's that simple.

  • Lisa Murkowski:

    At a bare minimum, they must be honest with the consumer with what you're feeding your family.

  • Megan Thompson:

    To Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the issue of labeling is such a big deal that she single-handedly delayed the sale of Aquadvantage salmon in the U.S. for years.

  • Lisa Murkowski:

    It's that "frankenfish,' is what we call it. Because it is so unnatural.

  • Megan Thompson:

    As a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Murkowski attached a rider to a budget bill that blocked the GE salmon from being sold in the U.S. Until the department of agriculture came up with rules for how it must be labeled.

    Murkowski's home state of Alaska is also the nation's leading seafood producer. Its massive, wild-caught Pacific salmon industry is a source of state pride. Murkowski even caught the huge Pacific salmon mounted on her office wall herself.

  • Megan Thompson:

    How much of this is about opposing this technology and how much of this is about protecting that industry, the politics surrounding that?

  • Senator Murkowski:

    It is more than just an industry. It is an identity, and it is something that we are so keenly tied to.

    The last thing we need is the introduction of some genetically engineered mutated species that could compete with our wild stocks for food and within habitat.

  • Megan Thompson:

    What Murkowski's worried about is the new, g.e. salmon somehow escaping and mingling with Alaska's wild species.

    Even though the only places g.e. salmon is approved to be grown now are the Aquabounty facilities in Canada and Indiana, from which, the FDA said, there's an "Extremely low likelihood" of escape .

    In Canada, the Aquabounty facility does sit right across from a river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Ron Stotish:

    All the water going through here goes through these containment barriers, these sock filters.

  • Megan Thompson:

    But Ron Stotish says, any water discharged into the river flows through at least five separate filters inside, and more barriers outside.

  • Ron Stotish:

    The likelihood of a 2-3 kilo salmon going through one of those filters, through one of those boxes and running out across the street and going through is virtually zero. We've been operating for more than 25 years and we've never lost a single fish.

  • Megan Thompson:

    He knows this because every fish is microchipped and tracked. And even if they did escape, almost none could breed with ordinary salmon because Aquabounty uses a process that it says renders about 99% of them sterile.

  • Yonathan Zohar:

    I think that we are as safe as we can be.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Aquaculture expert Yonathan Zohar leads the department of marine biotechnology at the University of Maryland. He provided expertise to the FDA when it was deciding whether to approve the genetically engineered salmon. Zohar does believe the sterilization technology can be improved and is currently doing research on just that. But for now, Zohar says there's another reason not to fear escaped g.e. salmon – studies show they wouldn't survive long in the wild.

  • Yonathan Zohar:

    They will not last for very long.

    Wild fish are outcompeting them when they're exposed to mother nature-type of conditions.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Zohar also wants to remind people that they're probably already eating a lot of genetically modified food.

  • Yonathan Zohar:

    I mean in this country, about 70 percent of all the plantable crops are genetically engineered. And people don't blink twice about it.

  • Yonathan Zohar:

    We are facing a major significant seafood crisis. Simply said, more people eat more fish, and as a result, we are fishing out and emptying our oceans.

    If you are going to use genetic engineering and produce a fish that is going to make it to the market size, and half the time, this will be huge. This will help aquaculture actually meet the challenge and become the industry that we need it to become so we stop fishing out the oceans.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Aquabounty is betting on it. In March, the company got the green light to start business in the U.S. A few months after the USDA issued labeling guidelines for all genetically engineered foods.

    There are a few labeling options: printing a symbol or the word "bioengineered" on the package or companies can print instructions on how to get more information. But some of those instructions don't need to mention the word, "bioengineered," and that's a problem for Senator Lisa Murkowski.

  • Murkowski:

    You can go to the bar code scanner, if you will, and get a reading. But you don't, you don't have the label that says that it is genetically engineered. And that's what I'm concerned about.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Murkowski is pushing a bill to make the labeling more explicit. But none of this will matter if Aquabounty's salmon end up in restaurants or similar institutions, because no labeling is required there. In the meantime, Aquabounty's gearing up production at its Indiana facility and its salmon could hit the U.S. market as early as the fall of 2020.

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