In November 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquaBounty salmon, a genetically engineered (GE) “frankenfish” that’s being touted as a way to solve overfishing and world hunger. The GE salmon are engineered to grow about twice as fast as typical farm-raised salmon, an eerie feat achieved by inserting the DNA from two other fish, a growth-promoting gene from a Chinook salmon and a “promoter” gene from the eel-like ocean pout.
This genetic tweaking results in fish with always-on growth hormone, and because they grow so much faster than other salmon, they also require less food. The fish are being grown on land and have several other supposed safeguards in place to prevent both escape and breeding with wild populations but, in nature, nothing is foolproof.
If you live in the U.S., the fish haven’t reached grocery store shelves — yet — but there’s a chance they could become the first GE animal food to be sold in the U.S. to date, with completely unknown consequences.
GE Salmon, Already Sold in Canada, May Soon Be in US Grocery Stores
While the FDA approved AquaBounty’s salmon over two years ago, a rider attached to an Alaskan budget bill imposed an import ban, effectively blocking the FDA from allowing GE salmon into the U.S. In Canada, however, the GE fish are already being sold and eaten, to the tune of 5 tons in 2017 (none of which were labeled as such).1 Meanwhile, AquaBounty has recently acquired a fish farm in Indiana, where they’re making plans to start raising GE salmon.
“That means the company’s salmon could be on sale in the U.S. by 2019, which would make it the first genetically modified animal food ever sold and eaten in this country,” wrote Richard Martin, senior editor for energy at S&P Global Market Intelligence, for BioGraphic. “Opposition, naturally, is fierce.”2
The creation of GE salmon is anything but natural. For the last 13 generations of AquaBounty salmon, dating back to a single GE fish from 1992, every fish carries a copy of the “mutant” gene set that leads to the supergrowth and is passed down to the next generation. As such, gene splicing doesn’t take place at every AquaBounty facility, although intense breeding of the GE fish does. Martin explained:3
“At spawning time, conventional females are milked of their eggs by hand, a method that requires two fish wranglers per female — one to handle the fish and another to hold the container that collects the eggs. The technicians use the same squeeze technique to extract semen, or ‘milt,’ from the males … When combined, the eggs and milt produce fertilized eggs.
The technicians place the developing embryos in a stainless-steel tube where they are subjected to high pressure. This renders all the embryos’ cells triploid, meaning they have three sets of chromosomes instead of two, which makes the fish incapable of reproducing …
After a period of incubation at the Bay Fortune hatchery [on Prince Edward Island, Canada], the sterile, all-female transgenic embryos are flown to a rearing facility in the highlands of Panama, where the resulting salmon are grown to maturity before being reimported into Canada …
Eventually, AquaBounty plans to produce market-ready fish at a new facility under construction at Rollo Bay, on Prince Edward Island, and at the Indiana facility — an existing fish production factory that belonged to a now-defunct aquaculture company.”
Most Americans Say They Would Not Eat GE Fish
In the U.S., negative public opinion has been instrumental in keeping GE fish off store shelves. In 2013, a New York Times poll revealed that 75 percent of respondents would not eat GE fish and 93 percent said such foods should be labeled as such.4 Yet, as in Canada, which does not require GE seafood to be labeled, the FDA concluded that AquaBounty salmon is “not materially different from other Atlantic salmon” and thus would not require any special labeling.5
If the frakenfish does end up in U.S. stores in the next year, then, you won’t be able to distinguish it from other salmon. Further, many experts are concerned that the release of GE salmon hasn’t been thought through and could pose a risk to wild salmon species.
Martin quoted Anne Kapuscinski, a professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth College, and George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, who stated, “The future of GE fish farming will surely involve larger fish farms, with less confinement, in many different environments.”6
As such, no one knows what future expansion could mean for the marine environment. A lawsuit led by the Center for Food Safety, and joined by U.S. tribes in the Pacific Northwest, including the Quinault Indian Nation, is challenging the FDA’s approval of AquaBounty’s salmon, alleging the agency “has not adequately assessed the full range of potentially significant environmental and ecological effects presented by the AquaBounty application.”7
The lawsuit is pending, but for now the FDA continues to maintain that AquaBounty’s salmon “is as safe to eat as any nongenetically engineered … Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.”8 They also state the approval “would not have a significant impact on the environment of the United States,” but the Center for Food Safety sees it differently, stating:9
“Salmon is a keystone species and unique runs have been treasured by residents for thousands of years. Diverse salmon runs today sustain thousands of American fishing families, and are highly valued in domestic markets as a healthy, domestic, ‘green’ food.
When GE salmon escape or are accidentally released into the environment, the new species could threaten wild populations by mating with endangered salmon species, outcompeting them for scarce resources and habitat, and/or introducing new diseases.
Studies have shown that there is a high risk for GE organisms to escape into the natural environment, and that GE salmon can crossbreed with native fish. Transgenic contamination has become common in the GE plant context, where contamination episodes have cost U.S. farmers billions of dollars over the past decade. In wild organisms like fish, it could be even more damaging.”