Belgian investigative journalist Mick van Loon, owner of the news site Newsmonkey, visited AquaBounty’s farming location in the jungle of Panama.
AquaBounty’s transgenic salmon, sold in Canadian supermarkets without being labeled as such, is farmed in Panama. Between 60.000 and 100.000 salmon per year are farmed at a location in the Panamese jungle.
Mick van Loon was in Panama this August. He decided to try to find AquaBounty’s farming location after having read the news about transgenic salmon being sold in Canada, Van Loon told Salmon Business.
“I was triggered by the fact that the company fertilizes salmon eggs in Canada, at their facility on Prince Edward Island, and then flies them all the way to Panama. Since I was in Panama in August anyway, I decided to find out more about this.”
The farming site is located close to Boquete, a small town in the east of Panama, popular among American pensioners, on the flanks of the Baru volcano, close to two national parks. Van Roon found out about the location from a Panamese journalist.
“I just drove there, with a four wheel drive. It was not easy to find. You have to drive through several streams, and there is hardly anything to see, you almost pass it without noticing. There are four big basins, some small channels for drainage and a shed, surrounded by a wired fence, that’s it. It looks very amateurish.”
Having visited salmon farms in Norway, Van Loon was quite surprised by this.
“There is no indication whatsoever what it is. No name sign, nothing. Just a small notice saying ‘private property’. In other countries, this would never be tolerated.”
The Panamese government is very supportive of aquaculture, adds van Loon. “Especially in that area, with not many other employment options. There are also several tilapia farms. And of course, Panama is known as a country where almost everything is possible…”
The location is very suitable for fish farming, because of the proximity of the Caldera river, Van Loon explains. There was only one man at work on the site when he arrived. “I talked to him, and he told me off the record the farm used to belong to a Panamese troutfarmer who had closed his business.”
Aqua advantage salmon
Ten years ago, American company AquaBounty Technologies of Maynard, Massachusets, managed to combine the growth hormone in chinook salmon with that of an American eelpout (Zoarces americanus) and thus created the so-called AquAdvantage salmon, which grows six times faster than regular farmed salmon. This fish can be up to 110 centimetres long and weigh more than 5 kilograms, and like other salmon it can survive in both brackish and seawater.
The DNA of the eelpout is hardly different from that of a salmon, but the eelpout produces constant growth hormone. Salmon only do this in summer.
In 2012 local environmental groups asked the government to inspect the farm. Some irregularities were found, and AquaBounty was fined a small sum. Since then, there have not been any other inspections, as far as Van Roon could discover.
“What really struck me, was the story in the Panamese papers about the hurricane in 2009, that swept away all the salmon in the hatchery. They just disappeared! It was investigated, but up to two years ago, there was a very corrupt regime in Panama, so the only conclusion was; we don’t know what happened to the salmon. I think it’s very likely some of them ended up in the river and maybe even the Pacific ocean. It’s only 100 meters away from the farm, and the small drainage streams end up in the river. And the Caldera river flows into ocean, after 30 kilometres.”
Van Loon is a realist: he is not against gen tech farming.
“There is no evidence gen tech fish would be bad for humans. I also have not seen anything that would indicate the use of antibiotics at the farm. What worries me is the complete lack of security. No cameras, anyone could climb that fence when nobody is there and take some fish. This is a project that has cost millions and took more than ten year of research. The company is very secretive about it, it’s a high tech sector. And then this..”
Escaping and rearing
The risk of genetically contaminating wild populations is very small, according to AquaBounty, because all AquAdvantage salmon are females, and triploid. They have three sets of chromosomes, making them sterile. It’s not completely safe though: 1.2 percent of the fish remain fertile.
“It’s a very small percentage. AquaBounty says it destroys those salmon, and that’s just about the only thing that has ever been released photographically from the Panama nursery,” said Van Loon.
“But with the lack of security in Panama, there is always a very small chance those salmon will find their way to the ocean.”
AquaBounty claims to have chosen Panama, and also a place in the middle of the jungle, because it did not want to run the risk of its fish escaping and contaminating local salmon stocks, Van Loon continues.
“But in 2008 AquaBounty tried to obtain a permit in several countries. It only succeeded in Panama; a company that violates environmental regulations can be legally punished for only up to USD 10,000 here.”
Grip on farmers
Perhaps there is not that much wrong with the genetically engineered salmon itself, says Van Loon, “But if we allow it, who knows where we will end up? In countries such as Panama, it is hardly ever checked that limits are respected.”
“Plus: if this way of producing becomes the blueprint, then genetically modified food becomes something that is controlled by biotech companies, from production to sales. This is not good news for the millions of livestock farmers and fish farmers all over the world. In countries such as the USA, but also more and more in Europe, it is already becoming apparent that the Monsantos of this world are increasingly controlling farmers by forcing them to grow genetically modified crops, for example, and making it increasingly difficult for them to earn a fair living in a decent way.”
For now, ‘regular’salmon farmers are not worried, a spokesperson from Norwegian salmon farmer Cermaq explains.
“Consumers in the European markets are skeptical when it comes to gen tech food. They are more and more preoccupied with the origin of the food they eat, and how it has been farmed. Consequently, we do not see a large demand for gen tech salmon in Europe, and don’t consider gen tech salmon a great threat to regular farmed salmon.”
Mick van Loon also tasted the salmon.
“I asked if I could try a piece. That was possible, so I took it with me and we prepared it. And we liked it, it didn’t taste any different from regular farmed salmon…”
Also read: International concerns about gen tech salmon