Q&A with Garth Fletcher, co-inventor of GMO salmon

·National Affairs Contributor
FDA's approval of AquaBounty GMO salmon decried by environmental groups
FDA's approval of AquaBounty GMO salmon decried by environmental groups

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved what is believed to be the first genetically modified animal for food consumption in the world — an Atlantic salmon engineered to grow about twice as fast as conventional fish.

The approval of the AquAdvantage salmon for American dinner plates is a major and controversial milestone in GMO products but it began as a purely academic exercise for a couple of Canadian scientists more than three decades ago.

Yahoo Canada News spoke to Garth Fletcher, now professor emeritus and head of Memorial University’s department of Ocean Sciences, about how he and fellow scientist Choy Hew co-invented the technology that is making headlines around the world.

Q: How did the idea surface?

A: In 1982, Nature magazine printed an article about a growth hormone gene that had been introduced to mice that made them twice the size as regular mice.

“That triggered the idea that, well, if they can do that in a mouse maybe we can do that in a fish,” Fletcher says, referring to himself and colleague and co-inventor Hew, a molecular biologist.

At the time, aquaculture was a nascent but rapidly growing industry — one that Newfoundland was very much interested in developing. The waters around Newfoundland, though, were too cold for salmon to survive winter. Fletcher and his colleagues were already working on figuring out why some fish could survive the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

They sought a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for funds to try and introduce an antifreeze protein gene to salmon.

It took a few years but by 1989 that was accomplished. Unfortunately, the gene didn’t produce enough antifreeze to keep the salmon alive through a Newfoundland winter.

“We needed another grant so we said making them grow faster may have a bigger appeal to salmon growers on a worldwide scale. That was a good selling point.”

They applied for a grant to transfer a growth hormone gene to Atlantic salmon and they got it.

“We already knew how to do the gene transfer,” he says.

Keeping it in the fish family, they took the growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon “because that was what we had,” and a promoter — or “on” switch — gene from an ocean pout.

“Much to our surprise and delight, we saw obvious results in the spring of 1990,” he says.

They filed a preliminary patent and, with the encouragement of the federal funding agency, sought a private sector partner. American aquaculture entrepreneur Elliot Entis licensed the technology from Memorial and the University of Toronto in 1992. In 1994, Fletcher and others from the fledgling company had their first meeting with the FDA in Washington, D.C., about regulatory approval. 

“The FDA did not have an approved method of regulating a GMO animal. They had no prior case to deal with,” says Fletcher, who is no longer with the company.

Over the next 20-plus years, the AquAdvantage made its very slow way through the regulatory hurdles.

Q: Did you expect the controversy?

A: “I think the whole thing blew apart with the British handling of mad cow disease. The British government handled it very badly,” Fletcher says.

“That really raised the public’s concerns about food safety. How do we trust the government?”

The fear spread beyond mad cow disease. Anything novel was a potential hazard and genetically engineered were certainly novel.

“’There’s frankenfish,’” Fletcher recalls.

“And, of course, Monsanto handled it quite badly as well. I guess they just didn’t see the curve ball coming at them with [their] GM crops.”

Q: What do you say to those who are opposed to this approval? (Opponents fear the harm the engineered salmon could cause in the wild if they were to escape from the P.E.I. facility where the salmon eggs are produced.)

A: “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” he says. “But this animal has had more rigorous review than any other food on the food market. So, if you don’t trust them on this one then you can’t trust them on all the others.”

Global warming and world population growth will increasingly put pressure on our ability to feed ourselves, he says.

“I think modern society is going to be looking at genetic engineering to say why can’t we fix this problem?”

Ultimately, though, Fletcher says it is up to the public.

“It’s up to them to decide whether they believe the regulators or they don’t.”

Q: Have you eaten the fish?

A: “Of course,” he says.

“When we had the facility in P.E.I., we’d go down there and have smoked salmon and sit around and enjoy ourselves at a barbeque.”

They had to cull the brood and the fish were not wasted, though none could leave the facility.

Q: How much has it cost to develop this product over the years?

A: “To date I would say they’ve certainly spent, all told, $70 million,” he says, including research and development, regulatory requirements, marketing, etc.

Q: Will that be worthwhile?

A: “What I’m confident about is whether it’s this animal or another one, it’s here to stay,” Fletcher says.

“The FDA has just gone through the process of working out how to do the regulations.

“It’s not going to go away.”

AquaBounty is still under review in Canada. Environmental groups are challenging the approval of the P.E.I. facility that rears the stock that is raised at a contained salmon farm in Panama. The judge has reserved the decision in that case.

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