Anglers all talk of the big one that got away. The AquAdvantage salmon has not exactly gotten away, but it isn’t in the pan either. This week’s National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA) annual conference in Omaha focuses on the “Precautionary Principle,” and a presentation from Ronald Stotish, PhD, executive director of AquaBounty Technologies, provided a case study of how a bias toward caution can prevent implementation of food technologies that could help feed the world.

Nineteen years ago, Aqua Bounties Technologies introduced the AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically modified variety of Atlantic Salmon with a single gene from a Chinook salmon spliced into its genome and accounting for a total of about one ten-thousandth of its DNA. This fish grows dramatically faster than other Atlantic salmon, reaching market size in half the time with 20 percent better feed efficiency and 5 percent better nitrogen retention. Because of its superior performance, it can be grown in tanks rather than in ocean pens.

The federal government, of course, has a process for reviewing and approving genetically modified plants and animals. The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, finalized in 1986, specified that genetically engineered organisms would continue to be regulated according to their characteristics and unique features, and not according to their method of production.

Studies on fourteen generations of the AquAdvantage salmon led to the FDA in 2010 determining the fish is an Atlantic salmon, as safe to consume as food as any other Atlantic salmon and that it represents no significant risk to the environment under conditions of use in application an approval. Those conditions for use in the application include growing the fish only in FDA-approved physically contained fresh-water culture facility and maintaining a population of only female fish for food production, to avoid any crossbreeding with wild populations.

From the beginning though, environmental groups and other interests, including the Alaskan wild-caught Pacific salmon industry, opposed and lobbied heavily against approval of the AquAdvantage salmon, citing concerns over food safety, crossbreeding and environmental damage.

Stotish points out that wild populations of Atlantic salmon are severely depleted, and in fact the species is listed as endangered in Maine. There is almost no commercial fishery for the species. Virtually all the Atlantic salmon on the market come from aquaculture facilities and the United States imports large quantities from several countries. 

Nevertheless, the AquAdvantage salmon remains unapproved after 19 years in regulatory review, three years since the FDA disclosed its findings showing no food-safety or environmental risk, two years since FDA published an environmental assessment, one year since the close of a public comment period and more than $70 million invested toward approval.

Regarding the opposition to biotechnology, Stotish says “the precautionary principle has become the weapon of choice to prevent innovation.”