‘Frankenfish’ – will buyers take the bait?

David Burrows looks at whether consumers in the US and Europe are ready to take the leap and purchase genetically engineered salmon now that it’s a commercial reality.

Would you eat salmon that has been genetically engineered to grow faster on less food? That is the question US consumers will soon be asking themselves as 150,000 bioengineered eggs arrived at a fish farm in Albany, Indiana, this summer.

First reported by the Chicago Tribune, but also covered in The Times, the eggs will reportedly produce the first genetically engineered salmon sold commercially in the US. Harvesting will begin at the end of next year and the most likely destination will be restaurants, said AquaBounty, the company rearing the controversial fish.

“The majority of seafood consumed in the US is in restaurants,” notes AquaBounty on its website. “The AquAdvantage salmon will help increase domestic supply to satisfy growing demand with a dependable, environmentally responsible, high-quality product.”

The company claims it can produce more fish in less time. It will also use fewer resources and produce less carbon. In other words, this is being pitched as sustainable salmon – and it’s reportedly been three decades in the making.

“If you have a fish that grows a little faster, such as an AquAdvantage that reaches market weight in half the time, you can produce those fish almost anywhere because you can grow them in a land-based aquaculture facility. Closer to consumers,” said former AquaBounty CEO Ron Stotish in an interview with PBS NewsHour in June. “So you can reduce the transportation cost, you can reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation. So this opens up a whole new opportunity for global salmon production.”

However, AquaBounty’s website has very little information regarding how the salmon is engineered. The Times reported that the scientists who developed the fish added a growth hormone from a large species of ocean salmon and a fragment of DNA from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout: “The eel DNA served as a switch, activating the growth hormone that caused the salmon to grow to full size in 16 to 18 months, compared to 32 months for Atlantic salmon. They also require a quarter less feed than their wild cousins.”

The US Food and Drug Administration has also said the salmon will be “safe to eat, the introduced DNA is safe for the fish itself, and the salmon meet the sponsor’s claim about faster growth”. Indeed, the approval has sparked a bullish optimism from AquaBounty’s current CEO Sylvia Wulf, who now wants to embrace the moniker “Frankenfish”, according to a report in Undercurrent News. “I don’t think people are dying from eating GMO [genetically modified organism] crops,” said Wulf. “And, in fact, we’re not going to feed an additional two billion people without moving past conventional methodology.”

But will people eat it? Wulf has suggested it’s a vocal minority that is anti-GMOs, but consumer polling suggests otherwise. “Despite broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to consume, a majority of Americans seem to be convinced otherwise,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC). An IFIC survey last year found that 43% of Americans avoid GM foods “somewhat”. That’s if they know it’s there, though.

Changes have recently been made to food labelling laws in the US, but there are a number of loopholes and exemptions – including for some ingredients and smaller manufacturers. In some cases, shoppers will need to text or call a company to determine what is in their food. “At a time when consumers are asking more and more questions about the use of genetic engineering, [the new rules] will further undermine the technology by sowing greater confusion among Americans who simply want the right to know if their food is genetically modified — the same right held by consumers in 64 other countries,” said Scott Faber, senior vice-president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a US-based NGO. Some of the largest firms will voluntarily disclose all GMOs in all their foods, not just in those required by the final rule.

Food sold in restaurants is also exempt, as are salads, soups, and other ready-to-eat items prepared by supermarkets. This perhaps explains why AquaBounty is targeting the foodservice sector for its new salmon. However, it won’t be coming to Europe anytime soon. "At this time we have no plans for Europe because of their anti-genetically modified [leanings]," Wulf said. "It doesn't make sense for us to think about Europe."

The salmon would, under EU laws, be labelled GM. But how would European consumers react if it were available? In Norway, a small trial conducted as part of a master’s thesis placed four different salmon products in a fish shop: conventional Atlantic salmon, Atlantic salmon with double omega-3, Atlantic GM salmon, and Atlantic GM salmon with double omega-3. The price of the GM products was also varied by both a premium (15%) and a discount (15%). There was a “clear preference for conventional salmon”.

Large-scale polling on the subject is pretty dated but suggests there would be a mountain to climb in terms of acceptability. In a 2010 Eurobarometer survey, 84% of Europeans had heard of GM foods but there was an “overall suspicion of GM foods amongst the European public”. For example, 70% said GM food is “fundamentally unnatural”, while 61% were “uneasy” about the whole thing and 59% suggested it was unsafe.

In the UK, the figures were slightly lower – in fact, only 39% felt GM food wasn’t safe for their health, the lowest figure in Europe. More recent research, by Populus in 2018, showed only 21% and 22% of millennials objected to the use of gene editing and GM respectively. “This hints at support among younger age groups for GM technology in the UK in the future,” the researchers said. May 2018’s consumer attitude tracker, published regularly by the Food Standards Agency, showed that 22% of respondents reported concern about GM food, which is about the level it’s been since 2010. However, over the years it has been among the most frequently mentioned food safety concerns spontaneously mentioned by respondents.

And it will be interesting to see whether there’s a jump in the next tracker, given that the issue is back in the news. In his first speech outside Downing Street as prime minister, Boris Johnson said: “Let's start now to liberate the UK's extraordinary bioscience sector from anti-genetic modification rules, and let's develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.” This will be music to the ears of those lobbying for GM, including many farmers, but what will the reaction of shoppers and diners be?

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