by Ken Kelley
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now reviewing a proposal by a Massachusetts company, AquaBounty Technologies, to sell genetically engineered salmon, which grow twice as fast as wild fish. If approved, it would be the first transgenic animal to be allowed into the human food supply.
The fish, called AquAdvantage Salmon, were developed at AquaBounty’s hatchery in Prince Edward Island, Canada. They are Atlantic salmon with an added growth hormone from the faster growing Chinook salmon. Engineers additionally inserted a gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout into the salmon, which activates the growth hormone and keeps the fish growing all year long.
Genetically engineered (GE) animals are not the same as clones, which the FDA already concluded are safe to eat. While clones are copies of an animal, in the case of GE animals the DNA has been altered to produce a desirable effect.
During hearings in late September, the FDA heard from consumer advocates who challenged the safety of GE salmon for human consumption as well as the agency’s reliance on AquaBounty’s own studies to make its decision. Consumers Union scientist Dr. Michael Hansen declared: ”The FDA has set the bar very low”, explaining that the data taken into consideration was “woefully inadequate” and that it ignored the presence of growth hormones in the genetically altered fish, which he also said could cause allergic reactions in humans.
Some also questioned why the FDA is assessing GE salmon not as a food but rather as a new animal drug. AquaBounty spokesperson Suzanne Turner subsequently responded to critics by saying, ”A lot of testimony by opponents at the FDA hearing was simply fear mongering.” She denied the growth hormone charge and said that no danger of allergic reaction had been detected in studies of the company’s fish, which were grown in Panama.
One of the most contentious issues surrounds labeling the fish. FDA scientists agreed with AquaBounty’s argument that there is no biological difference between wild salmon and the transgenic variety. Therefore, under federal guidelines, if the sale of GE salmon is approved they will not need to be labeled as genetically modified in the marketplace. Turner argues: “Putting one small gene into the fish isn’t going to change anything”, and adds that ”[t]he FDA has done a rigorous examination of the facts, and they found no difference in the flesh of these salmon.“
Following the hearings, a coalition of fishing industry groups and 39 lawmakers from both parties wrote to President Obama, urging him to direct the FDA to reject the approval of GE salmon. The effort was organized by Food and Water Watch, which is continuing to push a public letter-writing campaign against the proposal.
Prominent on the list of signatories were fishing groups and lawmakers from Alaska, where 80% of wild North American salmon are harvested. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement:
Putting unlabeled, genetically altered salmon in the marketplace is simply irresponsible, and the FDA needs to consider what impacts this will have before they approve this Frankenfish.”
According to AquaBounty’s Turner, if the FDA approves its request the company will sell fish eggs to salmon farming operations around the world. Because salmon are a cold-water species, most farms are now in countries like Norway, Canada, and Chile. But Turner says, “Because these are transgenic fish, they don’t require cold water, and could be raised anywhere in the world.” She says the salmon would only be grown at inland sites, which would prevent them from escaping into local waters. And even if some were to escape, the sterility of the GE salmon would prevent interbreeding with wild stocks.
Salmon farming generally takes place in ocean pens to allow for the large area needed to raise the fish. Due to the capital-intensive nature of the business, most farms are owned by large corporations and are notorious for the huge amounts of waste they release into the environment, along with antibiotics from fish feed and diseases that have to spread to wild fish stocks.
Though AquaBounty says its fish will only be grown in inland pens, this seems unlikely given the economics of salmon farming. Farmed salmon escaping into the wild has been a problem in Europe, North America, and Chile, and, since GE salmon are voracious feeders and faster growing, critics worry that escaped fish could easily outcompete wild ones for food and habitat, jeopardizing the health of not only wild salmon but other fish stocks.
If genetically altered salmon are approved by the FDA, more fish and animals will follow, bringing major changes to the human food supply. The thought is unsettling to Angela Sanfilippo of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association of Massachusetts, part of the coalition of fishing groups and lawmakers that urged Obama to direct the FDA to reject the plan.
Sanfilippo points out that salmon farms require huge amounts of small fish, lower on the food chain, to serve as fish feed. She says, “We believe people should eat the natural fish that already exist in the ocean… We don’t have to upset the balance [of the ocean’s ecosystem] to try to make these synthetic fish to take their place.”