Pushback continues against genetically modified salmon being raised at Indiana farm

“AquAdvantage” salmon most recently drew criticism from environmental advocates at the 2023 Farm Aid event.

By: - October 10, 2023 6:30 am

Salmon congregate in one of the tanks at AquaBounty’s farming facility in Albany, Ind., Thursday June 27, 2019. AquaBounty operates a recirculating aquaculture system, which allow fish to be grown in tank-based systems. (Photo by Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

As demand for seafood grows, including across the Hoosier state, a remote Indiana farm is harvesting thousands of pounds of salmon every year — on land. But the genetically modified fish teeming in the Albany tanks are continuing to draw pushback from environmental advocates who say the “Frankenfish” threaten local ecosystems and are not a sustainable food source. 

Engineered by biotech company AquaBounty Technologies Inc., the “AquAdvantage” salmon is the first such altered animal to be cleared for human consumption in the United States.

The boycott against the salmon has largely come from activists with the Block Corporate Salmon campaign, which aims to protect wild salmon and preserve Indigenous rights to practice sustainable fishing. 

The group’s latest protest materialized at last month’s Farm Aid benefit concert, held in Noblesville.

“Our food systems don’t stop at the water’s edge, especially when billions of people around the world rely on aquatic foods as a major source of protein,” said Jim Goodman, president of the National Family Farm Coalition. “(Genetically-engineered) salmon should concern us all, as it further entrenches the commodification and proprietary patenting of our food. Food is a basic human right — not a tool for building Big Ag empires.”

AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf (Photo from AquaBounty’s website)

AquaBounty continues to refute those claims, however, telling the Indiana Capital Chronicle it raises fresh Atlantic salmon “in a safe, secure, and sustainable way.” 

“Our highly controlled land-based farms and robust mitigation measures, approved by federal regulators, have been in use in our facilities for more than 20 years to help prevent any impacts, however unlikely, to the environment, endangered species, or wild fish populations. Additionally, our AquaBounty production salmon are female, sterile, and unable to reproduce, providing an additional and redundant biological barrier to protect wild salmon,” AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf said in a statement.

She said, too, that the company’s land-based farms use recirculated water and “don’t contribute to ocean pollution or harm sensitive ocean habitats which are so important to wild salmon.” Wulf additionally emphasized that AquaBounty is able to provide a domestic source of salmon that is produced in a highly-controlled, bio-secure environment.

“We are raising salmon on land to further protect and preserve wild salmon populations and do so in an efficient and sustainable way,” Wulf continued. “To meet the growing demand, innovative approaches like AquaBounty’s are an important solution to address the supply gap in a safe, secure and sustainable manner.”

Raising fish in Indiana

AquaBounty raises its faster-growing salmon at an indoor aquaculture farm in Albany, located in Delaware County. The fish are genetically modified to grow twice as fast as wild salmon, reaching market size — 8 to 12 pounds — in 18 months rather than 36.

The FDA approved the AquAdvantage Salmon as “safe and effective” in 2015. It was the only genetically modified animal approved for human consumption until federal regulators approved a genetically modified pig for food and medical products in December 2020.

In 2018, the federal agency greenlit AquaBounty’s sprawling Indiana facility, which as of last December was raising roughly 492 metric tons of salmon from eggs imported from Canada but is capable of raising more than twice that amount. The company is currently making improvements to its Indiana production facility. Once completed, salmon harvests are expected to increase.

The inaugural harvest of genetically modified salmon commenced in May 2021.

(Photo courtesy Community Alliance for Global Justice)

Company officials previously said the salmon would be sent to restaurants and away-from-home dining services — where labeling as genetically engineered is not required — in the Midwest and along the East Coast.

Details about AquaBounty’s specific customers have remained scarce, however.

So far, the only buyer to announce it is selling the salmon is Samuels and Son Seafood, a Philadelphia-based seafood distributor which sells to restaurants in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. AquaBounty’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) indicate at least two other major customers, which remain unnamed.

To ensure that genetically modified salmon are distinguishable in the marketplace, Congress passed a law in 2016 mandating certain labeling requirements.

Starting in 2022, if it’s sold in the grocery store, AquAdvantage Salmon must include a seal that says “bioengineered.” The product could also include a link or QR code pointing to that information. Restaurants, where the salmon is likely currently sold, are exempt from disclosure, though.

Clashing over salmon

But in a shifting domestic market that increasingly values origin, health and sustainability, and wild over farmed seafood, others are more critical of the salmon.

During the 2023 Farm Aid concert site, organizers from Block Corporate Salmon traveled an hour north to AquaBounty’s salmon growing facility where they sought to raise awareness about the “risks and harms” of genetically engineered fish.

“AquaBounty misrepresents its system to raise salmon in tanks that they claim will be recirculating water,” said Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director of Center for Food Safety. “In fact, their operations literally mine water, foul it with salmon feces, and dump it into the nearest river. They have a serious problem of illness in their chronically inflamed fish. They are not disclosing how many antibiotics they use. Consumers don’t need sick fish like these.”

Representatives from the Block Corporate Salmon campaign additionally spoke out against a new salmon farm AquaBounty is planning in Ohio. Executives said that facility could produce 10,000 tons of salmon per year, although higher-than-expected construction costs has stalled progress at the site, according to SEC filings.

“No one can guarantee that AquaBounty’s operations will not impact our drinking water. At its proposed facility in (Pioneer, Ohio), AquaBounty intends to pump more than 5 million gallons of water from the Michindoh Aquifer, and dump just under that into the nearby St. Joseph River, everyday,” said Sherry Fleming, an organizer with the Williams County Alliance who is fighting AquaBounty’s proposed facility in Ohio. She further noted that the Michindoh Aquifer is a key source of drinking water to communities in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, and the St. Joseph River supplies water to hundreds of thousands of people in Fort Wayne. 

“Despite our strong grassroots movement, the industrial aquaculture facility is getting an easy pass from a state regulatory system that has long been rigged in favor of big business,” she continued.

Still, the FDA determined that — based on the multiple forms of physical and biological containment used by AquaBounty — there is an “extremely low likelihood” that AquAdvantage Salmon could escape into the environments surrounding the Albany facility and survive within a waterway.

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Earlier, in 2022, Block Corporate Salmon also released “AquaBounty Exposed,” a report that outlined allegedly concerning conditions at AquaBounty’s Albany facility. 

Former employee Braydon Humphrey, who spoke at last month’s news conference, shared more than 60 pages of photos and videos that he claims detail how AquaBounty “regularly violated food and worker safety standards, ignored animal welfare concerns, and caused environmental damage unbeknownst to the public and its investors.”

“I was deeply disturbed by what I witnessed during my time at AquaBounty,” said Humphrey, who worked as a tech at the Indiana facility from December 2018 to January 2020. “Among other atrocities, we saw high mortalities in densely packed fish tanks — including common instances of AquAdvantage salmon dying from ruptured stomachs, caused by their artificially fast growth rate.”

Wulf called the the former employee’s allegations “grossly mischaracterized and sensationalized by the context in which they were presented.”

“Keep in mind, these issues are being raised by an anti-GE group opposed to not only our salmon but all bioengineered food,” she said. “At a time when food scarcity and food insecurity are impacting millions of American families, innovation in our domestic food supply that is scientifically proven as safe solutions should not be vilified, but rather celebrated. We take any allegation seriously because we care about our fish, our employees and the environment. Our commitment is to provide solutions to address food insecurity and better health by making salmon more affordable and accessible – a farming method and protein source that is good for the fish, good for consumers and good for the environment.”

Read the full statement from AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf, below:

AquaBounty raises fresh Atlantic salmon in a safe, secure, and sustainable way. Our highly controlled land-based farms and robust mitigation measures, approved by federal regulators, have been in use in our facilities for more than 20 years to help prevent any impacts, however unlikely, to the environment, endangered species, or wild fish populations. Additionally, our AquaBounty production salmon are female, sterile, and unable to reproduce, providing an additional and redundant biological barrier to protect wild salmon. 

The allegations the former employee made almost three and a half years ago, were in our opinion, grossly mischaracterized and sensationalized by the context in which they were presented. Keep in mind, these issues are being raised by an anti-GE group opposed to not only our salmon but all bioengineered food. At a time when food scarcity and food insecurity are impacting millions of American families, innovation in our domestic food supply that is scientifically proven as safe solutions should not be vilified, but rather celebrated. We take any allegation seriously because we care about our fish, our employees and the environment. Our commitment is to provide solutions to address food insecurity and better health by making salmon more affordable and accessible – a farming method and protein source that is good for the fish, good for consumers and good for the environment.   

AquaBounty is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We operate our facilities to very high standards covering food safety and consumer health, worker safety, animal welfare, and environmental impact. In fact, we recently completed our annual Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) audit of our processing facility with high marks for how we operate. This testifies to the high standards we hold for consumer health and safety. 

Our land-based farms use recirculated water and don’t contribute to ocean pollution or harm sensitive ocean habitats which are so important to wild salmon. Extensive physical containment and biological security barriers ensure our AquaBounty salmon are safe, protected from escape, and cannot reproduce with wild salmon. We are raising salmon on land to further protect and preserve wild salmon populations and do so in an efficient and sustainable way.

We respect the culture and history of indigenous people which is another reason we are committed to land-based farming and farm in a method that protects wild salmon populations and the broader ecosystem. Wild salmon is critically important to the supply chain as is volume raised with traditional farming methods. To meet the growing demand, innovative approaches like AquaBounty’s are an important solution to address the supply gap in a safe, secure and sustainable manner.  

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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