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.

More About

Future of Cities
The Future of Micromobility in Africa
The Future of Micromobility in Africa
Future of Cities
The Future of Micromobility in Africa
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, improvements to infrastructure shift focus from cars to micromobility. The city’s transportation plan calls for hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes and pedestrian pathways for increased safety.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, improvements to infrastructure shift focus from cars to micromobility. The city’s transportation plan calls for hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes and pedestrian pathways for increased safety.

Catalysts
A School Made for Homeless Children
A School Made for Homeless Children
Watch Now
Catalysts
A School Made for Homeless Children
When a child faces chaos at home, it's impossible to learn. This school is doing whatever it takes to help homeless students and their families create better lives.
Watch Now

When you think of homelessness, you typically don't picture homeless children. However, every year, approximately 2.5 million children experience homelessness. Homeless children can't learn when they don't know where their next meal is coming from, or what is waiting for them at home. They often struggle in public schools where they feel out of place, or unable to keep up because they've missed schooling in the past....

Power of the Pack
What Wolves Can Teach Us About Human Connection
What Wolves Can Teach Us About Human Connection
Watch Now
Power of the Pack
What Wolves Can Teach Us About Human Connection
Wolves are not often thought of as therapy animals, but Wolf Connections is changing that perception while helping young people in the process.
Watch Now

Wolves are not often thought of as service animals, but Wolf Connections is changing that perception while helping troubled youth in the process.  Wolf Connection is a wolf sanctuary that provides an education and empowerment program geared towards teens who are struggling through a variety of behavioral issues. At-risk youth from all walks of life learn about nature and conservation, they’re able to work through the...

Catalysts
Stopping Gang Violence with Love
Stopping Gang Violence with Love
Watch Now
Catalysts
Stopping Gang Violence with Love
This nonprofit is doing the impossible - finding the 10% of gang members responsible for 90% of the crime, and leading them to successful, positive lives.
Watch Now

“Society gave up on us” - but this community didn’t. Meet UTEC, the organization breaking the cycle of recidivism by helping hardened previously imprisoned gang members walk a better path in Lowell, Massachusetts. UTEC - or United Teen Equality Center - is a non-profit dedicated to stopping gang violence. Obviously, it’s not easy - in Lowell, MA there are over 25 gangs operating, and many gang members have been in prison...

#fixingjustice - Re-entry
24 Years For a Crime He Didn’t Commit
24 Years For a Crime He Didn’t Commit
Watch Now
#fixingjustice - Re-entry
24 Years For a Crime He Didn’t Commit
When a prisoner serving a life sentence is suddenly found to be innocent, it often makes national news. But what happens after the cameras go away?
Watch Now

There are around 2,200 exonerees in the U.S.—people who were convicted of a crime and then later proven innocent by their own doggedness or new evidence in a case. When they are freed from prison, their lives are often saddled by the same issues that hold back people who actually committed a crime—lack of education, no job skills or employment history, and the stigma of having spent years in prison. While their release is...

Pratham
How To Teach Kids to Read in as Little as 50 Days
How To Teach Kids to Read in as Little as 50 Days
Watch Now
Pratham
How To Teach Kids to Read in as Little as 50 Days
1 in 10 people in the world today are illiterate. This program teaches people to read in as little as 50 days.
Watch Now

1 in 10 people in the world today can’t read. Pratham’s innovative approach is helping kids in developing countries learn to read in as little as 50 days. Pratham’s methodology centers around teaching children based on their level rather than their age or grade. It began in India, where most kids are in school - but many aren’t able to read at grade level. The success of the core approach - teaching kids at their level and...

Cafe Momentum
This Restaurant Gives At-Risk Youth a Second Chance
This Restaurant Gives At-Risk Youth a Second Chance
Watch Now
Cafe Momentum
This Restaurant Gives At-Risk Youth a Second Chance
Cafe Momentum offers an alternative to the revolving doors at Texas jails.
Watch Now

Chef Chad Houser was a rising star in the Dallas restaurant scene, but after volunteering with kids in the criminal justice system, he felt a calling to do more. He gave up his job to start Cafe Momentum, a restaurant staffed by kids from the criminal justice system. They’re given year-long paid internships where they are taught the skills to succeed in restaurants and society. It’s his way of trying to fix the problems...

Dispatches
Why a Third of Antidepressants Are Prescribed for "Off-label" Problems
Why a Third of Antidepressants Are Prescribed for "Off-label" Problems
Dispatches
Why a Third of Antidepressants Are Prescribed for "Off-label" Problems
The "secret life of antidepressants" could open up a host of new treatments.
By Leah Shaffer

The "secret life of antidepressants" could open up a host of new treatments.

Culture
This Week in Ideas: Good Things That Happened in 2016
This Week in Ideas: Good Things That Happened in 2016
Culture
This Week in Ideas: Good Things That Happened in 2016
Despite 2016 being widely panned, there were also truly good things that happened over the past year. Here are some...
By Mike Riggs

Despite 2016 being widely panned, there were also truly good things that happened over the past year. Here are some of the big ones.