Aug 9, 2017 | 20:24 GMT

3 mins read

Global: Engineering the Future of Our Food


Biotechnology company, AquaBounty Technologies, sold 4.5 metric tons of genetically modified salmon Aug. 4 on the open Canadian market. The seminal transaction occurred after Canadian authorities approved the fish for human consumption in 2016. The sale marks a long-awaited victory for the company that has spent the better part of three decades working to bring their fast-growing salmon to dinner tables.

The modifications, which incorporate genes from two additional species of fish (the Chinook salmon and ocean pout), enable the salmon to grow in about half the time as non-engineered species. AquaBounty already has plans to expand its Panamanian production to facilities in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Additionally, the company is awaiting approval to begin production at recently acquired facilities in Indiana. Proponents see this type of engineering as a solution to growing uncertainty over supply in the market. Traditional salmon producing areas, however, have voiced objections to growing competition in a market.

Those objections have stalled the sale of the AquaBounty product in the United States, despite approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) six months before the Canadian government. Specifically, debate surrounding labeling requirements (heavily backed by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski) have delayed the sale of genetically modified salmon. But this is just the beginning. The journey from tank to table is important for more than just the salmon industry. Livestock producers of a number of different species also are waiting in anticipation for how this will play out. Genetic engineering trials for pigs, cattle and goats are underway. How fast policy catches up to technological developments will in part dictate the rate of adoption of biotechnology throughout the agricultural sector (in the United States and globally). This case, and other early endeavors, have the ability to set the precedent for others to follow, especially as genetic engineering techniques improve and become cheaper.

As we see genetic engineering techniques progress and knowledge spread about the purpose of specific genes, policy surrounding the sale of manipulated organisms will become crucial to the sector. In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration opened up a commenting period (that closed in June) on expanding the scope of its "Guidance for Industry #187." In non-legal speak, that is the directive on requirements for genetically modified or engineered labeling. In addition to the recombinant DNA technology that was prevalent in the later part of the 20th century (and what AquaBounty used to develop the salmon in question), the new language would include improved methods, including the much-touted CRISPR.

Meanwhile, the continued development of biotechnology remains a key strategy for both the United States and China, and both countries will likely remain undeterred from this approach moving forward. External drivers, demographics, changing dietary patterns and climate change are going to force producers to do more with less. Biotechnology (gene editing and the increased knowledge of genomic purpose) allow for better control of beneficial traits, whether it is a faster growing fish or pigs that emit less phosphorus. As its relevance grows, we will also see an increased emphasis on biotechnology in trade negotiations, especially as policies and protocols seek to better address emerging technologies. 

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