Will America Miss Out on the Promises of Animal Biotechnology?

Genetic engineering of agricultural animals could be one of the most interesting and promising fields of biotechnology.

Pigs can be genetically engineered to produce human compatible donor tissues, cells and organs. Cattle can be bred to be “prion-free” and resistant to mad cow disease. And, spider silk generated in the milk of genetically engineered “spidey goats” is twice as strong as Kevlar.

The technology isn’t exclusive to land animals. Thanks to genetic engineering, seafood can be farmed locally in a more sustainably and efficient manner, meeting an increased consumer demand for healthy protein sources. 

But is America embracing these innovations?

Take, for example, the AquAdvantage salmon. This Atlantic salmon contains a gene from a Chinook salmon, allowing it to grow year-round. Conventional salmon only grow in warmer months, making the AquAdvantage Salmon ready for market in half the time.

There is no detectable difference in its appearance, ultimate size, taste or nutritional value due to the genetic engineering. It just grows faster providing a positive result for fish farmers, retailers and consumers whose appetite for salmon has all but depleted the domestic supply.

In considering whether or not to approve the AquAdvantage salmon for commercialization in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has conducted 15 years of review, poring through thousands of pages of data and scientific study. The FDA concluded that these fish are exactly the same as any other Atlantic salmon and are safe for consumption. Yet, approval remains elusive.   

In the meantime, on Capitol Hill, some Members of Congress from salmon-producing states decided to block the fish’s approval by barring FDA funding in the 2012 spending bill. This political interference, along with an arduous and uncertain approval process, just might send this salmon – and a whole host of other technologies– to countries with more hospitable attitudes towards biotechnology.

The science and business community is watching. Ron Stotish,president and chief executive officer of AquaBounty Technologies, developer of the AquAdvantage salmon, has said that if U.S. approvals collapse, AquaBounty will take its fish offshore for approval.

In addition, a recent piece from The Hill, noted that experts in science and policy state:

“Innovative industries face preposterous, discriminatory regulatory obstacles and consumers pay higher prices for scarcer (and often inferior-quality) goods. And others who might be tempted to invest in or create new technologies or products get the message: Even with a superior product, you can be blindsided by cynical and perfidious political forces as you near the goal line. This is a sad commentary on innovation in America. And on Congress.”

Academics have also expressed their frustration. Dr. Matthew Wheeler of the Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has said that unless attitudes change, there is little to no future for animal biotech research in the United States. 

Innovations in animal biotechnology may migrate from America to countries like China, Brazil, and Argentina, according to BIO’s report, Genetically Engineered Animals and Public Health – Compelling Benefits for Health Care, Nutrition, the Environment and Animal Welfare.

Authored by Wheeler and Dr. Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute, the report explains the promises of animal biotechnology, details the scientific progress achieved in recent years and explains current applications in the pipeline like the AquAdvantage salmon and the Enviropig – which digests phosphorus more efficiently and reduces waste production.

The U.S. government needs to embrace science or America’s best and brightest scientists, along with our nation’s leadership in innovation, might just go someplace else.