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Are Politics Killing the U.S. Animal Biotech Industry?

December 6, 2012
A number of national newspapers ran an in-depth Associated Press article this week on the continuing saga of the AquAdvantage salmon and the challenge of its developer, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, to stay afloat.

The fish, genetically engineered to reach market weight in half the time of a conventional salmon, is a sustainable answer to the world’s demand for high-quality seafood protein, but its application for approval with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) remains stalled due to political interference by the technology’s detractors.

Another media report this week, an ABC News Video, tells the story from the perspective of ABC's Jim Avila, who visits the secret freshwater fish farm in Panama where the fish are produced, and he talks to AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotish.

Salmon that’s been genetically modified to grow twice as fast as normal could soon show up on your dinner plate. That is, if the company that makes the fish can stay afloat. After weathering concerns about everything from the safety of humans eating the salmon to their impact on the environment, Aquabounty was poised to become the world’s first company to sell fish whose DNA has been altered to speed up growth.

The Food and Drug Administration in 2010 concluded that Aquabounty’s salmon was as safe to eat as the traditional variety. The agency also said that there’s little chance that the salmon could escape and breed with wild fish, which could disrupt the fragile relationships between plants and animals in nature. But more than two years later the FDA has not approved the fish, and Aquabounty is running out of money.

“It’s threatening our very survival,” says CEO Ron Stotish, chief executive of the Maynard, Mass.-based company. “We only have enough money to survive until January 2013, so we have to raise more. But the unexplained delay has made raising money very difficult.”

The FDA says it’s still working on the final piece of its review, a report on the potential environmental impact of the salmon that must be published for comment before an approval can be issued. That means a final decision could be months, even years away.

Scientists worry that Aquabounty’s experience with the FDA’s lengthy review process could discourage other U.S. companies from investing in animal biotechnology. That would put the United States at a disadvantage at a time when China, India and other foreign governments are pouring millions of dollars each year into the potentially lucrative field that could help reduce food costs and improve food safety.

Stotish worries that the U.S. government is unwilling to approve the technology at the heart of his company’s work.  “This is about more than Aquabounty and more than salmon,” Stotish says. “And shame on us if we allow this to slip away because of partisan bickering and people who oppose new technology.”