The billionaire behind the world’s first genetically modified salmon

If you want to sample the world’s first animal to be genetically engineered in the name of dinner, good luck finding it. If, on the other hand, you would never eat such a thing – good luck avoiding it.

Tons of lab-developed salmon was sold in Canada last year without any packaging labeling it as a product of science, and the company that created and raises the fish, AquaBounty, won’t release the names of food distributors it sells to.

Giant restaurant supply companies, such as Sysco, deny ever having carried the product. Grocery store chains far and wide – including Costco, Sobeys and Loblaws – say they have not, and will not, stock it. Restaurants Canada, the industry group for the country’s food service industry, says it has not heard any chatter about the fish.

At least five of the 121,000 tons of salmon farmed in Canada last year was genetically modified, engineered to grow faster and with less food. To shoppers – given no prior warning or labelling information – the product would be impossible to distinguish from regular salmon. Labeling for genetically modified foods is not required by law in the US or Canada.

But where, exactly, did the company sell it?

“We do not disclose the names of our customers, but they have been very positive about our product, stating that it was very high quality in terms of appearance, texture and taste,” said a company spokesman, Dave Conley.

AquaBounty Technologies, which created the first genetically modified fish in the world, announced this year that it had sold five tons of transgenic salmon in Canada – last year. The company made no announcement when it started stocking store shelves with the fish, a decision that has come under fire.

“For all the time and investment that went into the world’s first genetically modified food animal, there was no public notice, there was no announcement about this market breakthrough,” said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Network.

“The genetically modified salmon was put on the Canadian market under a cloak of secrecy where Canadians did not even know it was on the market,” she said. Sharratt herself only found out about the sale of transgenic salmon after reading a news story.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold as food are labeled in 64 countries, and surveys have shown that Canadians and Americans also want GMOs – and particularly transgenic animals – to be labeled. Supporters of the technology argue it could increase plant and animal productivity, and stave off hunger as the human population grows and climate change becomes more severe. Repeated literature reviews have not found harm to human health from plants that have already entered the food supply.

However, because any gene from the biosphere can be used to produce a genetic modification, the nutritional value of foods could change, as could the behavioral traits of engineered animals. A recent report found plants designed to be herbicide resistant are fueling the use of glyphosate, the weed killer found in Monsanto’s Roundup that has been linked to cancer. Critics also argue that surveillance of GMO’s effects has been lax and made more difficult without labeling.

The world’s first genetically modified fish farm is a subsidiary of Intrexon, a $2.2bn company headed by Randal Kirk, a self-made billionaire. Kirk, who claimshe taught himself to read when he was three years old and is an avid falconer, believes Intrexon has a chance to become “one of the great companies of the world”.

“These are products of technology, not government decisions or social policy making,” said Kirk at the 2016 World Food Prize event. The meeting is sponsoredby the world’s largest agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland. Kirk called “technophobia” his company’s “chief impediment”.

“The debate – supposed debate, the faux debate, if you will – around the adoption of technology frequently takes odd paths. One will receive questions like, ‘Uh, GMO, gee, how do you feel about the ethics of that?’” he said, posing a mock question. “Ethics – I’m sorry, I did study ethics.

“The idea of simply masking fear by calling it ethics is absurd,” he said. Intrexon declined to comment on this story.

In addition to AquaBounty, Kirk’s companies make apples that don’t brown (Arctic apples); mosquitoes designed to die (through its subsidiary Oxitec); and clones of pets or livestock (Viagen). The organization is working on peaches resistant to plum pox, fast-growing tilapia and a cure for cancer.

At the World Food Prize event, Kirk went on to describe how Intrexon had “fixed the main problem of the apple”. The company altered an enzyme that breaks down the apples once they are cut – nature’s way of releasing seeds into the environment.

“People don’t really want whole apples – they want pre-sliced apples,” Kirk told the crowd. “This may actually be and become the most preferred GMO food, at least to date. It’s almost impossible to find someone who has tried it who doesn’t love it.”

Intrexon is no stranger to controversy. Near Key West, Florida, last year, Oxitec aggressively pursued an experiment that would have released genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment. The male bugs are designed to breed with wild female mosquitoes and produce offspring that never reach maturity. The public opposed the experiment, especially in the community where it was supposed to take place; 65% voted against it in a referendum.

“Opening this Pandora’s box – sometimes you don’t see the impact until five, 10, 15 years down the road,” Keys real estate agent and activist Mila De Mier told the Guardian last year, at the height of debate.

“I’m not against genetically modified at all,” she said. “Sometimes, I don’t know what I put on my table, but that’s the difference – it’s about choice,” she said. “Permission has not been asked or given… This is only for Oxitec’s benefit.”

Whether Kirk’s salmon business is viable, however, remains to be seen. AquaBounty appears to be losing money. The company earned only $53,000 through its salmon sales, according to public reports. It lost $2.1m the same year. Intrexon’s stock price has lost most of its value since a record high in July 2015, dropping from $64 per share to around $18 at the time of publication.

Public opinion in North America is decidedly in favor of labeling genetically modified foods. A 2014 Consumer Reports poll found an astounding 92% of Americans in favor of labeling genetically modified salmon.

Sharratt described Intrexon’s work as “part of changing our idea of what food is”.

“That apples now come in plastic bags in slices, or fish are genetically modified and grown in farms,” she said. “Do we need non-browning apples, genetically engineered, when we already have naturally non-browning varieties of apples, and we have one of nature’s most perfect fruits without it being packaged in a plastic bag?”

Nevertheless, Kirk’s bet could pay off. The CEO has rightly identified the salmon market as enormous. The US imported $3bn worth of salmon in 2016, or roughly 339,000 tons of fresh and frozen fish.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, as an industry has grown at a steady 5.8% clip worldwide since 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The business is currently dominated by countries such as China and Vietnam.

In part of Kirk’s World Food Prize speech, he argued consumers did not need to understand the mechanics of a technology before adopting it, using the public’s willingness to use the smartphone as an example.

“I think our society is definitely setting a record,” said Kirk. “There’s never been another generation of man who has been so dependent on technology we don’t understand.”

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