Thanks to an Alaska senator, it’s caught in a net of politics, money, and fear.
Here in Albany, Indiana, a town of roughly 2,000 just a few miles from Muncie, the roads are flanked by fields of genetically modified corn and soybeans. Albany isn’t unique in this regard. More than 90 percent of the corn and soybeans in America are GMO commodities. However, one farm in Albany stands out. In fact, there’s no other agricultural operation in America like it.
AquaBounty Farms of Indiana is a land-based fish farm designed to raise the revolutionary AquAdvantage salmon. Scientists created the fish in the 1980s by inserting a Chinook salmon growth-hormone gene into an Atlantic salmon, adding a DNA sequence from an eel-like ocean pout to activate it. The result is an Atlantic salmon that grows to market size twice as fast as a conventional one.
After a tortuous 20-year regulatory journey, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption in 2015, making it the first genetically modified animal ever to receive the distinction. For AquaBounty Technologies, based in Massachusetts, the approval was cause for celebration. After spending decades and millions of dollars fighting for the right to sell their product, they could finally bring it to market. They purchased the Albany farm in 2017 hoping to make it a historic site: the birthplace of America’s first GMO food animal.
The champagne, however, remained corked. As it turned out, not all Americans were eager to embrace a genetically engineered fish. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, whose constituency includes that state’s $4 billion salmon industry, emerged as one of its most strident opponents. Murkowski has long enjoyed the Alaskan salmon industry’s support, and it was understandable for her to go to bat for them. Murkowski claimed the issue wasn’t one of money, but of health and environmental safety. Joining several activist environmental groups, she expressed concerns about the fish’s suitability as food. (“I don’t even know if I want to call it a fish,” she said.) After the FDA approved it, she slipped a rider into a spending bill blocking the sale of the salmon in the U.S. until labeling guidelines for bioengineered food animals could be established.
AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotish dismisses claims that his fish is unsafe, pointing out that it has undergone “two of the most rigorous scientific reviews in history” by the FDA and Canada’s ministry of public health. Last summer, AquaBounty petitioned the FDA to allow it to label its salmon voluntarily and move forward. More than three years after receiving FDA approval, though, the AquAdvantage salmon continues to swim upstream against a current of opposition. “This is the worst of American politics,” Stotish says of Murkowski’s power play. “It’s the brass-knuckles, smash-mouth corruption people are complaining about in Washington.” Read the article.