While genetically-engineered (GE) crops are nothing new to U.S. dining tables, GE animals are a different matter. In the case of GE salmon, at least, it appears that is about to change.

Reports that government regulators will soon approve the fish -– developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies -- for consumption have surfaced and, as expected, GE naysayers are howling in protest. Along with the typical concerns about the safety of such genetic manipulation in general, there are also worries about such fish getting loose and, if that happens, how they will affect wild salmon populations.  

In mid-October, Farm Press spoke with Ron Stotish, AquaBounty President and CEO. Stotish spoke on the arguments against GE salmon, the positive impact the GE fish could have on declining world fisheries and where they can be raised. Among his comments:

A short history…

“I joined AquaBounty in 2006 from another biotech company. I came specifically to help them with preparations for a new animal-drug application for the AquAdvantage salmon.

“When I joined, there really wasn’t anyone in the company with experience in getting a product like this approved. In fact, it was before the FDA issued guidance on how these products would be regulated.

“So, I arrived in 2006 and took over as CEO in 2008.

“My background – over close to 40 years, now -- is in the animal health industry with extensive involvement in research, development and commercialization of a variety of animal drugs.”

This is the first GE animal set to be approved by the government?

“That’s absolutely true. This would be the first genetically modified (GM) food animal approved in the United States.

“As your readers know, we’ve had GM crops for many years. Their market penetration is quite extensive. That’s particularly true of soybeans, sugar beets, cotton and other crops.

“Although this sort of science started with animal systems back in the 1970s, the animal side has been much slower to move into the food supply.”

On the GE salmon genetics…

“It’s very straight-forward. These fish are basically genetically identical to all other Atlantic salmon with one exception: we’ve added a single gene for the growth hormone from a Chinook salmon. A single copy of that gene has been placed in the Atlantic salmon background so that fish grows faster than the unmodified Atlantic salmon.

“That’s roughly one gene out of, probably, 30,000 in the fish. That’s less than one ten thousandth of one percent of the DNA. That’s less variability than you see, for instance, in normal sexual mating and other sorts of changes in animal genomes.

“It’s a very minor, very specific change. And what we’ve done is basically give the fish the ability to grow faster when conditions – water temperature and food -- permit. That distinguishes it from its wild counterpart.”

GE salmon’s actual rate of growth?

“If you look at growth curves, depending on where you pick it, the growth rate can be six to 10 times faster.

“The idea, though, is that this fish grows more rapidly in the first year of life. That translates to a fish that reaches market-weight in approximately half the time.

“Normal, or unmodified, Atlantic salmon grow very, very slowly for the first two years of life. Beyond that period, the growth rates (of the GE and wild salmon) are very similar.”

So, you cut the production time by half. What does that mean in terms of feed? Does it take the same amount of feed to raise a GE salmon as it does a wild salmon to reach the same size?

“Our fish is a little more efficient so it takes less feed to reach the same weight. It isn’t 50 percent but our fish probably (requires) 10 to 20 percent (less), depending on the numbers you use. (That) comes from published studies from a variety of sources, including ourselves.

“Our fish have greater feed efficiency. That’s typical of what you see in animals with higher levels of growth.”

You mentioned temperatures are important. How far south can these GE salmon be raised and still be viable?

“Well, salmon are cold-water fish.

“We grow them in Panama today where there’s a fairly tropical climate. But we’re growing them at about 3,000 feet altitude, which means there’s nice, cool water.

“For the GE salmon to grow at a maximum rate, the water temperature should be between 9 degrees and 15 degrees Celsius. With refrigeration or elevation, you can grow these fish economically.”