AquaBounty aiming to build new RAS sites overseas

Published on
November 13, 2019

For more than two decades, AquaBounty has been developing its genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon, which the company plans to grow in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). 

Since the company gained regulatory approval, and finally had an import alert lifted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May, the it has been busy growing the first batches of genetically modified salmon at its land-based facility in Indiana. That step was a big moment for the company, AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf told SeafoodSource.

“I think the next-biggest moment for us was when we imported our first batch of AquAdvantage salmon eggs, and they went into the Indiana farm in late May,” Wulf said. “And we just imported our second batch. The fact that we have fish in the water, and another batch of eggs that are going to hatch, that’s a huge thing for us.”

Thus far, all signs point to the process being successful, Wulf said. Now that its salmon has started its growing process, the company is already setting its sights on developing markets for the product, both in the United States and abroad.

The company’s core concept of producing salmon in land-based aquaculture has allowed it to set its site on producing salmons in locations – and countries – that have a robust demand for salmon, Wulf said.

“We’ve begun conversations with a number of states in the U.S. in terms of where the next facility will be,” Wulf said. “We’re looking at probably three to five different sites in the U.S., we’re looking at additional sites in Canada as well.”

The main requirement for the production facility, Wulf said, is that it needs to have an adequate supply of groundwater. AquaBounty has been raising salmon in freshwater for years, without any need for a saltwater phase, allowing the company to be flexible when it comes to selecting a site for a facility. 

Wulf said the company also aspires to take its aquaculture model overseas. 

“China is of significant interest to us, and we’re having a couple conversations with partners over there to build the next farm,” Wulf said. “We have approval for field trials in China, and the Chinese government has been very receptive in trying to navigate the regulatory approval process.”

The company has also begun – and is near completion – of field trials in Brazil, and is also exploring facilities in Israel. All three countries are net importers of salmon, making them prime markets for AquaBounty’s product, Wulf said.

The company has other advantages, even over others planning similar land-based, RAS facilities, according to Wulf. She mentioned that Rabobank’s prediction of only 10 percent of RAS facilities succeeding and other predictions of a narrow window of success for RAS, don’t take into account some of the advantages that AquaBounty’s product has. 

As opposed to other companies that are aiming for a premium market space, the faster growth rate of AquaBounty’s salmon means the company can get higher throughput, avoiding the need for a higher price-point, Wulf said.

“We plan to price our salmon consistent with commodity pricing. We don’t need a premium,” Wulf said. 

The product has two main advantages: It grows much faster than other Atlantic salmon, and it processes feed much more efficiently. 

“Those two advantages are what other RAS producers wouldn’t have,” Wulf said. 

Gaining that advantage wasn’t easy for AquaBounty, as it spent more than 20 years gaining  regulatory approval to sell its salmon inside the U.S. and Canada. Genetically modified seafood is a new development in food production, and as such the relevant regulatory bodies – such as the U.S. FDA – were thorough in their analysis of the salmon, Wulf said. Prior to the lifting of the FDA import alert – first put in place in 2016 – all genetically engineered or modified salmon products were banned from entry into the U.S. 

“We had to forge a path, and the challenges have been because no one came before us, we had to create the process for approval with the FDA,” Wulf said. “I think of this as a 25-year-old start-up. That’s the way I like to describe it to people.”

Wulf said there are still obstacles to the success of her company's product, including political opposition. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recently introduced a rider to a spending bill to block the sale of genetically modified salmon. Additionally, there have been calls for a boycott of the product from U.S. and Canadian groups, and continued criticism from health groups claiming there could be risks to genetically modified products. 

Wulf said that Murkowski’s attempts to block the sale of the company’s salmon is “misguided protectionism” of the Alaskan salmon industry. She added that the bar keeps being moved when it comes to labeling and proving that AquAdvantage salmon poses no risk to humans or to wild salmon populations.

“I don’t think the anti-GMO people have done consumers good. The reason I say that is there’s no science to indicate there’s any problem with GMOs. I think they’ve done consumers a bit of a misservice. They’ve stirred up a lot of controversy with no real fact," Wulf said. "I think the most important thing is, after 20 year of regulatory testing, we are completely confident that our AquAdvantage salmon is as safe and nutritious as a non-bioengineered salmon. We’re the most studied food in history, and I’m proud of what they’ve [FDA] done because I don’t think there’s anything they didn’t look at.”

Wulf said while she believes in transparency, and that the company will ensure that all of its products will carry clear labeling, the concerns over GM food are "overblown" and not based in fact.

“We’ve been eating genetically modified food for 50 years, and no one can point to what the problem is, because there isn’t one,” she said.

Wulf added that the salmon the company produces has been successfully bred through 14 generations, and has been proven to be healthy.

“I think [critics] don’t understand that the genetic modification took place 30 years ago," she said.

Products like AquaBounty’s, she added, could play an important role in the future of food as the world’s population grows. 

“It really does solve the challenges that we’re facing. It’s a nutritious protein that can reduce the carbon footprint of our current methods in a biosecure environment,” Wulf said. “I’m a huge advocate for sustainable practices, which is why I find this to be so interesting, because it really does answer all those questions.”

The next step for the company, Wulf said, is finding a market for the product. The company has been in conversations with “a number of different customer types,” which have shown interest in the product. However, the big step will be having a completed product, which should be soon. 

“They all want to see it and taste it before they make a commitment,” Wulf said. “Our estimate is, it will be sometime late fall in 2020, it takes about 18 months to grow that fish.”  

Photo courtesy of AquaBounty

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