Senate’s Stoppage of Salmon and Science Could Hurt Us All

Forward-thinking leaders from both political parties are waking up to the hard truth that natural resources are going to become scarcer as the world’s population multiplies and our environment continues to change.

It took all of human history to reach a billion people on Earth in the 1800s. Demographers predict we’ll reach a tenfold increase – 11 billion humans – by 2100. Explosive population growth will soon give us far more hungry mouths than the current global food supply can feed.

Biotechnology allows societies to grow more food using less water, soil, fertilizer and pesticides. It empowers ranchers to revolutionize animal breeding, reduce antibiotic use and give livestock natural immunity to deadly diseases like African Swine Fever and avian influenza. And it gives us new ways to sustainably produce nutritious, animal-based food.

Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies developed a safe, replicable process to farm fast-growing Atlantic salmon. The company produces the fish more efficiently than traditional means, using less feed. Using land-based freshwater facilities, they are producing Atlantic salmon physically near where they will be consumed, minimizing shipping costs and reducing emissions and impacts on our marine ecosystems.

In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made history when, after rigorous scientific and environmental testing, it approved the commercial sale of AquaBounty salmon – the first time a bioengineered animal was ever approved for human consumption in the United States. Based on that FDA approval, AquaBounty opened a state-of-the-art, fish-farming facility in Indiana, with plans to build other land-based freshwater facilities throughout the country.

Yet more than four years after the FDA approval and after Canadians began selling the salmon in their stores, it remains unavailable to American consumers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has inserted in the 2020 agriculture appropriations bill – just as she has in previous years – a rider aimed at preventing domestic sale of the salmon. One member of Congress is not only instituting a national ban on a safe, healthy, FDA-approved food, but undermining FDA’s authority and scientific expertise.

Sen. Murkowski believes the ban benefits the Alaskan salmon industry, but it does not. Even as volumes of imported salmon have increased year over year, global demand exceeds supply.

AquaBounty’s fish are Atlantic salmon, a less expensive alternative to the Pacific salmon caught and sold by Alaskan fish companies. More than 90 percent of Atlantic salmon sold domestically is imported from other countries. The Senate rider doesn’t actually protect the Alaskan fishing industry; it protects Chilean and Norwegian companies that export Atlantic salmon to our shores.

If the Senate passes the ban this year, hundreds of thousands of salmon being farm-raised in Indiana will have to be destroyed, and important scientific progress in the face of a looming hunger crisis will be delayed.

What happens with these fish is being watched closely by the entire global biotech industry. AquaBounty has invested more than 20 years and tens of millions of dollars to develop and obtain FDA approval for its salmon. How many other companies in this space will make that kind of investment when faced with a regulatory system that a single member of Congress can circumvent on a whim based on a parochial concern?

President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to remove red tape and barriers to help biotechnology breakthroughs more effectively reach U.S. markets. If Sen. Murkowski is allowed to strongarm her colleagues into supporting this measure, investment in the entire biotechnology industry will suffer. These, after all, are the answers we’ve been desperately waiting for science to deliver.

As a species, we now have the know-how and determination to use our deepening understanding of DNA to tackle enormous global problems. Congress must do its part to put the national interest first and deliver bold solutions – and U.S. jobs – so our innovative companies can lead global efforts to affordably expand the food supply.

Innovation is our best hope to lower food production costs, increase agricultural outputs and sustainably feed the world. The Senate should signal to our scientists and entrepreneurs that we need them to keep inventing, while signaling to our investors that betting on our planet’s future is a smart one.

Jim Greenwood is president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization; he represented Pennsylvania’s 8th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005.

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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misidentified AquaBounty’s land-based freshwater facilities as marine farms due to incorrect information from the contributor.

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