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'Frankenfish' or Tomorrow's Dinner?

by Marc Kaufman, Staff Writer
Washington Post, October 17, 2000

FORTUNE, Prince Edwards Island Amid the winding coves and family farms that grace this northern island sits an unassuming, dimly lit warehouse. Inside, dozens of large plastic tubs roil with fish as water pumps hum and the smell of the ocean fills the air.

It's a decidedly low-tech spot, but a technological revolution is underway. The first animals genetically engineered for American dinner plates are being raised here salmon spliced with genes that make them grow two to four times faster than nature's best.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing an application to sell the fish, a decision that will likely influence the fate of scores of other biotech animals being brought to life in dozens of similar labs around the world for humans to eat.

Pigs engineered to have less fat, chicken designed to resist illness-causing bacteria, beef that can grow twice as fast on less feed they are all in the pipeline. Advocates say animal biotechnology can supply abundant food at increasingly low cost.

But with opponents of genetic engineering already questioning whether soybeans and corn endowed with new genes are safe for people and the environment, the prospect of a genetically engineered animal has sparked intense controversy.

Opponents call the salmon "Frankenfish" and question the ethics of implanting genes from one animal species into another. The salmon is economically unnecessary, they argue, and could wreak havoc with the environment by outcompeting endangered wild salmon.

"This has gotten so much bigger than we ever imagined," said Arnold Sutterlin, an aquaculture specialist with A/F Protein, an American-Canadian company that is producing the salmon. "We just thought we were making a better fish."

The company says there is nothing mysterious about what it is doing, and has been unusually public about its efforts and plans. A steady stream of scientists, government officials, even tourists tramp through the warehouse. Some visitors received samples of the salmon which looks and tastes the same as other farmed fish but the Canadian government put a stop to that.

To create the salmon, scientists spliced into their eggs a growth gene from the Arcticpout, a fish that thrives in very cold water. That gene allows the salmon to act like a colder water fish, which means its growth promoter genes remain more active than a normal salmon. That could be a boon to fish farmers because their salmon would be ready for market earlier, and would grow on less food.

But even usually sober scientists worry that not enough is known about such fish to risk the damage that their release into the wild could cause. And some researchers argue that conventional crossbreeding of fish can achieve many of the same results as genetic engineering, with fewer risks.

"There are so many difficult questions raised by these fish, and we just don't know the answer to many of them," said Robert H. Devlin of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who has also been raising and studying biotech salmon in British Columbia since the early 1990s. He said that research is underway worldwide to genetically modify at least 25 aquatic species, ranging from flounder and carp to lobster and shrimp.

"We need to know more about possible environmental impacts, since they could be substantial," he said. "There are real potential benefits here, but I haven't seen the scientific studies showing that the risk is under control."

The stakes are especially high in the case of the salmon because both wild Atlantic salmon and some species of Pacific salmon are depleted or even officially endangered the result of decades of overfishing and habitat destruction. These wild fish now share many of the same waters as the millions of salmon growing in fish farms along the northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and many scientists are concerned about what might happen if the engineered salmon escape.

"It doesn't make sense to roll these dice unless we're sure that they won't come up snake eyes," said William Miller, science adviser to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

The most prominent reason for concern is the "Trojan gene" hypothesis of Purdue University's William Muir. Using a different kind of genetically engineered fish, Muir found that larger, faster-growing biotech fish are more likely to succeed in mating than conventional fish. But the offspring of those biotech fish are genetically less well adapted to survive. Consequently, Muir believes, biotech fish could quickly decimate a fish population by their increased ability to produce damaged young. Muir has proposed further research into this hypothesis, but has been unable to get funding.

Elliot Entis, president of A/F Protein, says that his company's studies have not found that its salmon end up being larger than wild salmon at sexual maturity, meaning they would not have a mating advantage. He also calls the Trojan gene hypothesis beside the point: Fish breeding technology can render the biotech fish almost 100 percent female and infertile, he said, and that means they simply can't reproduce.

In addition, the company has proposed that fertile versions of the fish be raised only in tanks on land, and that only sterile fish be allowed to be raised in the traditional ocean cages now commonly found off Maine, Atlantic Canada, Chile and Norway. Even some critics of genetically modified salmon acknowledge that that could protect wild salmon from damage being done by fish farming.

But critics warn that the precautions offered by A/F Protein to keep their salmon infertile and away from wild fish are not foolproof and point to the recent discovery of unapproved biotech corn in taco shells as an indication of how easily things can go wrong. Even the escape of a handful of fertile biotech salmon, they say, could have enormous negative consequences.

Salmon farmers and their organizations worldwide have also voiced strong opposition to the salmon, calling them the solution to a problem that does not exist. The rapid growth of the salmon farming industry in the past decade has already caused the price of salmon to plunge in the last decade. Of even greater concern, the salmon farmers worry that consumers won't want biotech fish, and their entire industry could be harmed as a result.

Yet Entis said that opposition is considerably thinner than it appears. His firm already has orders for 15 million biotech salmon eggs, and major international salmon growers are contacting him all the time, he said.

"They are concerned about some scientific issues, and they are concerned about whether consumers will accept it," he said. "But they also understand that our fish would reduce their costs dramatically, and they are always looking for something like that."

The company has also found significant interest in his biotech fish eggs abroad especially in Chile (already a major salmon producer,) in China (which could grow salmon in its northern waters) and Southeast Asia (which has an interest in biotech tilapia), he said. The company hopes to open offices soon in Singapore and Santiago, Chile.

While American attention is focused on the risks of biotech fish, many poorer countries are more interested in the potential benefits, according to Eric Hallerman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences' biotechnology committee. China and Cuba are already raising biotech carp and tilapia, he said, and China is raising engineered carp as well.

"In those underdeveloped countries, they are eager to move ahead with commercial uses of biotechnology in fish production," he said. "This technology can definitely increase productivity by significant amounts, and that is very important in countries where people don't get the protein they need."

Because issues raised by the salmon are new and complicated, the FDA made the unlikely decision to review the fish not as a food, but rather as an animal "drug" since it changes the growth rate of the animal. Aware of public concerns about biotech products, the FDA plans to hold public hearings on the salmon and other possible animal biotech products before taking any action.

"This is the index case, the first product like this to approve or not approve," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine. "These are issues as complicated as any we expect to see in a [genetically engineered] animal. We expect this to provide a good model for how to regulate similar products in the future."

Because it's unlikely the fish would pose any danger to human health, a large part of the FDA's assessment of biotech salmon will involve measuring environmental risks. That has led some to suggest the wrong agency is reviewing the application. FDA officials said that experts from the Environmental Protection Agency and the agencies that oversee marine life will also participate, but the ultimate decision will be made by the FDA.

Officials said it will take at least a year to finish the required human health and environmental studies; others predict considerably longer. But even if the FDA approves the salmon, anyone who wants to farm the fish in coastal waters may have to get approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which have both voiced opposition recently.

Because of a loophole in the rules governing the importing of animal drugs, engineered salmon raised abroad could reach American markets sooner. That loophole was initially written to cover the importation of meat raised abroad with chemicals that aren't used and haven't been approved in the United States. However, it could also allow biotech salmon to be imported if the FDA finds them to be safe for human consumption before tackling the more complex and time-consuming process of determining environmental safety.

Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, believes there is no reason for the FDA to dawdle on approving the salmon. "This is not rocket science," he said. "It's a straightforward question of risk assessment."

But antibiotech and environmental groups have "ginned up a lot of protest about salmon," so approval is uncertain, he said.

"If [the FDA] screws it up, the salmon case would definitely have spillover effects on the industry," he said. "But the positive impact of an approval would actually be disproportionally larger, and would reaffirm the role of the agency while being another nail in the coffin of the protesters. It would open the door to lots of terrific innovation."

Marc Kaufman, Staff Writer
'Frankenfish' or Tomorrow's Dinner?
Washington Post, October 17, 2000

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