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Science & Technology

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Biotechnologie. Les gros poissons du business OGM

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

Biotechnology. Big business’s GMO catch of the day.

Translated Wednesday 6 September 2017, by Meghan O’Shea

GMO salmon has surfaced. AquaBounty owns the rights and is a subsidiary of the limitless Intrexon, itself owned by the leviathan, Third Security LLD...

Transgenic salmon is the first animal to have been autorised for human consumption in the United States and in Canada.

Paul Darrow/Polaris/Starface

In the beginning are the fish; and the ones at issue today may have been raised in a pool, but many people see them as having evolved in troubled waters. Produced from a sophisticated transgenic cocktail, designed to grow twice as big, in half the time, as their natural counterparts, GMO salmon is the first animal of its kind to have been authorized for human consumption. The legal battle lasted 20 years, but in 2015 the US Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, allowed it into grocery store aisles; this decision was then repeated a year later by its Canadian counterpart.

It was in Canada that this news broke the surface, on August 4, when consumers learned that it was swimming onto their plates. Incognito, it should be added. It was announced, without fanfare, in statement regarding profits, that five tons of the product had already been sold throughout the country since January. This fish fry isn’t free though. Its official name, which cannot be mentioned without citing copyright: AquAdvantage® - a funny name for a fish - is the exclusive right of AquaBounty Technologies, a Canadian company launched in 1991 by a handful of scientists.

A $2 billion market for Atlantic salmon

Being its own creator, AquAdvantage® may not fully comprehend the depth of its osmosis tanks. But it owes its life to them. And the debt has been repaid, since it first entered the market, it has earned its parent company a net profit of US$53,000.

While not swimming in money, AquaBounty Technologies is anything but small fry. On its website, it boasts of its Mom and Pop feel, which it uses to lend support to its ethical branding: 23 employees, all working together, located in two offices - one in Massachusetts, in the United States, the other on Prince Edward Island, a small island in Canada.

But this company has great expectations, and is looking to jump to a bigger pool, and not one located in just the North. Its target is all of the Americas. In 2008, it founded a subsidiary in Panama.

In 2014, the company registered in Delaware, USA, and in 2015 it created AquaBounty Brazil, which was created to market its products. Last June, on the 13th, Ronald Stotish, CEO - pink cheeked and white mustachioed with a smiling face - announced that he was about to acquire $14 million worth of assets in the Bell Fish aquaculture facility, in Indiana. "This will provide AquaBounty Technologies with its first commercial production facilities in the United States," he said.

Atlantic Salmon reels in US$2 billion, every year. As of 2019, AquaBounty hopes to inject, the equivalent of 1,200 metric tons per year of its AquAdvantage® into the market, "which represents a sales potential of US$10 million per year, to begin with," a statement said.

While this has been a long time coming, the future promises a bountiful yield. The future also holds bigger and more interesting fish, even an octopus or two. Introducing Intrexon. A little known name, not commonly discussed. Intrexon does not have the notoriety of Monsanto, with whom it shares some common interests. In a long article titled " Intrexon, l’entreprise qui modifie tout le vivant", Christophe Noisette, editor in chief of the site Inf’OGM, dissected this vast enterprise. First, Intrexon recruited its people from the original Master of Ceremonies. "On the Intrexon board, we find Robert B. Shapiro, ex-President and CEO of Monsanto between 1995 and 2000," the journalist states. The board also includes John McLean, who joined after working at Monsanto for 25 years, and Sekhar Boddupalli, a former executive from Monsanto’s Vegetable Seeds Division. But what Intrexon and the giant seed company have in common, above all else, is a gluttony for growth. At the beginning of 2017, Intrexon took over AquaBounty by becoming its main shareholder. This was not its first meal.

"In August 2015, it bought the UK start-up, Oxitec, which specializes in the development of GM insects, for $160 million," Christophe Noisette relates. Boosted by this infusion of money, Oxitec developed a factory producing transgenic mosquitoes in Brazil, which are now all the rage in that country.

Before this, Intrexon had already taken over TransOva Genetic with its cloning and bovine breeding technologies, which had itself swallowed up ViaGen Pets, a specialist in the cloning of domestic animals. Now, Intrexon is drinking from the waters of gene therapy, a sector in which it has many joint ventures pursuing treatments for eye diseases, diabetes and female infertility.

But in the ocean of business, this octopus has some competitors. "Intrexon is nothing compared to the behemoth Third Security LLD, its main shareholder," concludes Christophe Noisette. A pension fund created in 1999 by Randal J. Kirk, a US multi-billionaire. A buyer and seller of biotech companies, the 63-year-old man holds the largest portfolio of companies working on genetic therapies. This allows him to reign today at the top of this food chain - while waiting for an even bigger sperm whale to come along.

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