by Fred Dickey Published August 13, 2012
“Frankenfish” is not a joke that makes Henry Clifford laugh. People fighting to survive rarely find humor in name calling.
Clifford is an aquaculture scientist and vice president of AquaBounty Technologies, a biotech company with research headquarters off Miramar Road in San Diego. The achievement, but also the bane, of his company is that it has bioengineered and patented a way to increase the weight of farm-raised salmon with dramatic acceleration. However, the fact that it is done by a genetic modification is what spooks some people and gives rise to the “frankenfish” accusation.
Clifford, who lives in North County — he is leery of saying which city — says the company is on the verge of Food and Drug Administration approval, but drawn-out delays in the process have driven AquaBounty close to the financial wall, forcing it to repeatedly scramble for operating funds. And after 20 years of research and $60 million already invested, the money bucket drops a long way to the bottom of their well. Translation: jobs are close behind cash in going out the door.
On an issue like this, I bring my “C” in biology to the table, so I have to dumb things down to understand them. Fortunately, dumbing down can lead to boiling down, and that’s what I’ll try to do with this.
Clifford explains that what AquaBounty has done, reduced to simplest terms, is to take the growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook salmon, implant it in farm-raised Atlantic salmon and thus speed up the growth rate of the Atlantic salmon by two to five times, depending on the size of the fish. They don’t grow bigger, just faster.
According to Clifford, the company has about 300 egg-laying salmon in Canada. These brood fish are isolated in land-based, tightly secured, monitored tanks. When eggs are laid (millions of them), they are fertilized with the milt (sperm) of genetically modified fish. The eggs are then converted to all female (don’t ask me how) and then made sterile, meaning the eggs are destined to grow fast into spinster fish.
Because of the uniqueness of the undertaking, Clifford’s company spent 17 years working closely with the FDA. Many of the studies they completed (more than 10,000 pages, he says) were almost as complex as a new drug application.
Finally, in 2010, the company’s application completed the FDA’s difficult obstacle course almost to final approval.
Let’s get back to the “frankenfish” argument. Opponents say they fear that modified fish might not be safe to eat, could escape into the ocean and corrupt their wild cousins, and, well, they argue, who knows where this meddling with mother nature could lead?
Clifford groans wearily at those arguments and replies that if and when AquaBounty gains final approval, the eggs will be sold to inland hatcheries, and only to those practicing the same level of security as in the company’s facilities. Those hatcheries would also have to be inspected and approved by the FDA.
Unwilling to engage in scientific debate and thus look ridiculous, I fall back on FDA documents that reviewed the AquaBounty application. I see two questions as vital: One, is the modified fish safe to eat? Two, is there a contamination threat to wild fish?
The FDA 2010 finding on the food safety aspect says: “We conclude that food from the [AquaBounty] salmon is as safe as food from conventional salmon …”
The FDA finding also says the likelihood “is extremely small” that AquaBounty fish could escape into the wild. And if they did, the report continued, “It is concluded that the likelihood is extremely small that [AquaBounty salmon] will establish and reproduce …” In other words, the fish would not wiggle free, but if they did, they would have nowhere to go.
By the sound of that, final approval was just around the corner, right? Not so fast. An outraged Clifford is convinced that an alliance (unholy to some, unusual to all) of environmental action groups and the fishing industry has used insider political muscle to delay final government blessing for nearly two years, and for which it has given no reason.
Groups that have joined arms against AquaBounty include Consumers Union, Sierra Club, Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch.
Meanwhile, the company twists in the wind. As the clock ticks, the bank account drains.
Clifford cites repeated efforts by the Alaska congressional delegation to scuttle the AquaBounty science and deny it final FDA approval. It’s clear, he says, the fishing industry fears competition from a new quarter. And no one doubts the clout of the Alaska fishing industry over that state’s politicians. However, every attempt to destroy AquaBounty by politics has, thus far, been rebuffed by Congress.
That the fishing industries would try to undercut scientific inquiry with politics should not shock anyone. Are we surprised that these guys play rough? But if it’s true, for the environmental movement to do the same is beneath its calling and our expectations. What gives power to special interests is the lack of public knowledge and debate. This is an example of a public issue being fought out in the shadows where the infighters excel.
A scowl crosses Clifford’s face when he says, “What is happening to us is in many ways a parable for the demise of our country as a world leader in innovation. A small, vocal minority with an extreme agenda has been able to hijack the process and the dialogue, and prevent the development of needed new products.”
Genetically modified, plant-based foods such as corn and soybeans, by the thousands, have had an easier time gaining acceptance with the public. There is no doubt, however, that the idea of messing with animal genes spooks some people. We have science fiction and B movies to thank for much of that. But because we might have a way to make salmon grow faster does not mean the fish will also have two heads or grow huge and gobble us.
Apart from getting into the bowels of the science where I do not belong, if the FDA finding is accurate, it would be a happy thing if faster maturing fish would put cheaper, more plentiful seafood in the meat counter display case.
To people who say we should eat costly wild salmon rather than farm-raised, let me fall back on clichés and say there aren’t that many fish in the sea, and that ship has sailed.
The influence of modern science on the food we eat is inevitable, and if managed sanely, highly desirable. Population growth is going to inexorably outstrip food production. So the question is, does the U.S. lead or follow in meeting that need?
“China already has more than a dozen applications for genetically modified animals. And in the end, those products will find their way into our markets, and so what will the activists have actually achieved other than putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage?” Clifford argues.
Come to think of it, if the Chinese develop and market these fish first, then maybe we can steal an invention from them for a change. Mildly amusing thought, perhaps, but we want to succeed the old American way — by beating them.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.