Skip to main content
Move the World.
The First GMO Salmon is Coming to a Store Near You

The ability to manipulate genes once seemed like something out of science fiction. But now the first genetically modified animal is headed to U.S. supermarkets.

The development of this new GMO salmon began in 1989 when Atlantic salmon eggs were injected with genes from both Chinook salmon and ocean pout, an eel-like fish. This modification speeds up the growth cycle from three years to 18 months. The salmon are currently being raised at two facilities in Canada and Indiana. It is the first genetically engineered animal to be approved for sale, and the first U.S. harvest is expected in the fall of 2020.

Genetically modified salmon eggs from AquaBounty Technologies. The first U.S. harvest is expected in the fall of 2020. Photo by Freethink.

Genetically modified salmon eggs from AquaBounty Technologies. The first U.S. harvest is expected in the fall of 2020. Photo by Freethink.

The GMO salmon's producers, AquaBounty Technologies, say bringing production closer to consumption reduces the carbon footprint of getting fish to market and solves problems plaguing the aquaculture industry, like ocean pollution and overfishing. With an increasing global population, some say biotech could be the key to sustainably increasing the amount of food the planet will need this century.

Biotech could be the key to sustainably increasing the amount of food the planet will need this century.

Opponents of GMO food have derisively called the salmon "Frankenfish," and AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf has embraced the name, saying it faces the same kind of pitchfork-wielding mob that Frankenstein's monster suffered. 

"Land-based aquaculture and biotechnology are going to be a part of the future," Wulf said. "We blazed the trail and set up the process so others will be able to follow it."

From Lab to the Market

The road to bringing GMO salmon to the U.S. wasn't a smooth one, but it's not the first food innovation to be the center of a long political battle. Take the case of margarine versus butter, for example. When margarine, with its recipe of sheep's stomach, beef fat, and potassium salts, was first introduced, it was demonized by the dairy industry, outrageously taxed, and banned from being yellow. The current war on lab-grown protein launched by the cattle industry includes courtroom battles threatening to outlaw using the word "meat."

The AquaBounty Technologies lab in Indiana is growing the first U.S. batch of genetically modified salmon. Photo by Freethink.

The AquaBounty Technologies lab in Indiana is growing the first U.S. batch of genetically modified salmon. Photo by Freethink.

AquaBounty has encountered similar battles since it first approached the FDA in 1995, when there were no rules in place to guide GMO animal products. The FDA decided it would regulate GMO foods the way new drugs are regulated — requiring testing for safety, toxicity, allergens, nutritional profile, protein content, fat content, minerals, hormone concentrations, and other lab work.

For AquaBounty, it was an arduous process that took more than a decade of lab work, followed by a string of assessments by other U.S. agencies. But it had its share of excitement, too, like when Greenpeace showed up on the roof of their Canadian facility with a helicopter and motorcade, wrapped the building in caution tape, and climbed on the roof to protest the operation --- giving the overnight building manager the fright of his life. 

In total, the process cost the company around $120 million and over three decades of work. 

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf has embraced the name “Frankenfish” saying it faces the same kind of pitchfork-wielding mob that Frankenstein’s monster suffered.

"It is the most analyzed fish product in the world," said Garth Fletcher, the Canadian researcher who invented the salmon. "Once we submitted the data and (the FDA) reviewed it, it took a while for them to codify the way in which they are going to evaluate the technology." 

Paving the Way for Food Innovation

Genetically modified foods are expanding, with new products in development around the world such as dairy cows that don't grow horns (and therefore don't need to be painfully dehorned), pigs that are low-fat and excrete less polluting nitrogen, and chicken eggs that fight cancer. But the food tech space can expect a series of battles. The history of other food innovations and the current turf war over alternative meats show that regulatory bottlenecks can stifle food innovation, and public perception is hugely important. 

Today, popular food fashions claim that "pure" and "natural" foods --- with no additives or GMOs --- are healthiest, even though the bulk of scientific data shows GMOs are safe for the consumer. As with most innovations, the old guard is focused on protecting its turf, and consumers are often caught in the middle.

As is the case with AI, autonomous vehicles, and other advanced technologies, the innovators who work in laboratories will have to participate in ethics conversations, develop the right language to use for the products they create, and play an active role in the development of effective regulations. 

Innovation is also needed to develop better methods of testing foods quickly and thoroughly (so it doesn't take 30 years to evaluate a single product), as well as producing data that helps consumers make sense of issues like the health, safety, and environmental impacts of high-tech foods.

Go Deeper

Join Michael O'shea as he visits Aquabounty to get up close and personal with GMO Salmon.

Up Next

Global Health
The Next Pandemic Is Out There. Is the Private Sector Ready?
Event 201 works with private sector for global pandemic preparedness.
Global Health
The Next Pandemic Is Out There. Is the Private Sector Ready?
Johns Hopkins' simulated, international catastrophe is helping business, government, and public health leaders improve global pandemic preparedness.

Johns Hopkins' simulated, international catastrophe is helping business, government, and public health leaders improve global pandemic preparedness.

Missing Words
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.
Missing Words
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.
Volunteers worldwide are documenting the world's rarest languages in a project called Wikitongues.

Volunteers worldwide are documenting the world's rarest languages in a project called Wikitongues. Over a thousand volunteers (and counting) from around the world make videos of people speaking their native language — introducing themselves, providing an oral history, or just talking about their culture — then upload it to an online database. The archive is available on the web as a free language encyclopedia. Soon they will also be available at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Catalysts
OGU: Original Gangsters United Ending Gang Violence
Can Former Bloods and Crips Unite to Break the Cycle of Violence?
Watch Now
Catalysts
OGU: Original Gangsters United Ending Gang Violence
For the children of Dallas, these ex gang leaders may be their only chance.
Watch Now

What do you get when former Bloods and Crips gang leaders come together? Original Gangsters United, a pathway to ending gang opposition, promoting peace, and saving younger generations from senseless violence. Antong Lucky is a former Bloods gang leader in Dallas, Texas. Like most children, Antong never aspired to be a part of a gang or to end up in prison. But sadly, many communities affected by peer pressure and gang violence leave kids with no choice. When Antong left prison, he began working to bring opposing Dallas gang leaders together to put an end to gang violence. And it worked.

Thinking Differently
The Joy of Being Wrong
The Joy of Being Wrong
Watch Now
Thinking Differently
The Joy of Being Wrong
Can practicing intellectual humility make us smarter and happier? Science says yes.
Watch Now

Arguments on social media are notorious. People often naturally form an echo chamber of people with similar beliefs, and when people outside it start arguments, the discussion often becomes antagonistic. Is there a better way? Science suggests that a good starting point is by practicing intellectual humility. By admitting the possibility that we ourselves could be wrong, we’re able to better evaluate arguments and construct...

Inspiring
These Hero Pups Are Helping Veterans and Prisoners Heal
These Hero Pups Are Helping Veterans and Prisoners Heal
Watch Now
Inspiring
These Hero Pups Are Helping Veterans and Prisoners Heal
Hero Pups is an organization providing support dogs for military veterans and first responders. Now, prison inmates are helping train them - with great results.
Watch Now

Hero Pups is an organization providing support dogs for military veterans and first responders. Now, prison inmates are helping train them - with great results. In this video, Freethink reporter Michael O’Shea meets a veteran of the Iraq War who was struggling with PTSD. He was fortunate enough to receive a service dog from Hero Pups, and it’s helped relieve the stress and anger that used to keep him from leaving the...

Relentless
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
Watch Now
Relentless
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
How one relentless, unconventional principal rallied an underdog school.
Watch Now

Hamish Brewer, the unconventional principal of Fred Lynn Middle School, went viral and won praise for his work turning the school around. But can he rally the school to the next huge milestone - regaining accreditation? Since moving from New Zealand to the United States, tattooed, skateboarding principal Hamish Brewer has helped inspire teachers and students at lower-income schools to smash people’s expectations. After his...

The Dad Changing How We Investigate Police Shootings
The Dad Changing How We Investigate Police Shootings
Watch Now
The Dad Changing How We Investigate Police Shootings
After his son was killed by police, Michael Bell fought for over a decade to change how we investigate police shootings.
Watch Now

For over a decade, ever since police killed his son, Michael Bell has been trying to get an independent investigation into the shooting — and he's fighting to make sure that every family is entitled to one, whenever police use lethal force. In November 2004, his son, Michael Bell, Jr., was pulled over in front of his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for an alleged traffic violation. Although a dashcam video captures the initial...

On The Cusp
This Week in Ideas: How to Form Good Habits, the Case Against Empathy, and a...
This Week in Ideas: How to Form Good Habits, the Case Against Empathy, and a Miracle Cure Derailed
On The Cusp
This Week in Ideas: How to Form Good Habits, the Case Against Empathy, and a...
From how to make good habits (and keep them) to a crisis at the NIH, it's a new edition of our week in ideas.
By Mike Riggs

From how to make good habits (and keep them) to a crisis at the NIH, it's a new edition of our week in ideas.

Culture
This Week in Ideas: Beer That Delivers Itself, Chatbots From Beyond, and How to...
This Week in Ideas: Beer That Delivers Itself, Chatbots From Beyond, and How to Set a Very Strange World Record
Culture
This Week in Ideas: Beer That Delivers Itself, Chatbots From Beyond, and How to...
Uber's self-driving beer truck, how a chatbot can help the grieving process, and more of our favorite stories from...
By Mike Riggs

Uber's self-driving beer truck, how a chatbot can help the grieving process, and more of our favorite stories from the week.