AquaBounty Technology's genetically modified salmon just got a hefty financial boost from the USDA: On Monday, the agency awarded the Massachusetts-based company $494,000 to study technologies that would render the genetically tweaked fish sterile. This would reduce the likelihood they could reproduce with wild salmon, should any escape into the wild -- a scenario that has many environmentalists concerned.
The Atlantic salmon, which is branded with the name AquAdvantage, has been genetically altered with a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a "genetic on-switch" gene from an ocean pout that will allow the fish to grow all year round, reaching market size much faster than traditional salmon.
In mid-2010, AquaBounty's salmon appeared to be on the fast-track for approval by the FDA, which would have made it the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. But the process has since been stalled. Lawmakers in states like California and Alaska have been actively introducing legislation that requires the fish to be labeled as a GMO product or to prohibit its production entirely. Then, this June, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit the FDA from using funds for approval of the salmon.
The same bill the House voted on (an Agriculture Appropriations amendment) is currently stalled in the Senate. Now the USDA grant is raising eyebrows. Upon FDA approval, the company would sell salmon eggs to aquaculture operations looking to farm the fish. The majority of farmed salmon are raised in open-net ocean pens, a practice environmentalists have condemned for years because of escapement, pollution, and disease. So it's no surprise that the issue of reproductive ability is being closely scrutinized.