by Craig Weatherby
A small Massachusetts company called AquaBounty has spent 15 years and $60 million working to create genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon.
This would be the very first GM animal food sold, if it gains FDA approval… an event that didn’t occur this week, as many had feared.
Vital Choice will not sell GM salmon, for three reasons.
Second, we mistrust the FDA, which has proven amenable to industry pressures to overlook or downplay food and drug health concerns.
Finally, we favor natural and organic foods very strongly. With regard to GM foods, that preference is underscored by possible health concerns and the notably weak oversight exercised by the U.S. Congress and the FDA.
An overview of the process of engineering GM salmon
GM salmon suffer a setback
The so-called “AquaAdvantage” salmon are sterile females that grow twice as fast as natural Atlantic salmon (18 months versus three years) and will allegedly be raised only in onshore pens with no access to the sea.
To achieve this outcome, AquaBounty scientists inserted into Atlantic salmon a growth-hormone gene from king (Chinook) salmon and an “anti-freeze” gene from the eel-like ocean pout (They plan to raise the fish at onshore facilities in Panama, of all places).
On Monday, this controversial project reached an FDA review panel charged with deciding whether to allow these GM salmon to be sold for human consumption.
As many had hoped, the panel rejected the data presented by AquaBounty as inadequate to determine the potential for harm.
The panel's findings are not binding for the FDA, but the agency usually listens closely to its recommendations… so their ruling should considerably delay the day when GM salmon might appear in stores or restaurants.
Frankly, it may never happen, since all of the major salmon farming firms have rejected the idea of raising these GM fish.
Our view on GM salmon
First and foremost, we agree with the many critics who say that the FDA’s review process is inadequate to determine the safety of GM crops, much less the safety of GM animal foods.
(To learn more about that and other issues surrounding this GM salmon, click on the links at the end of this article.)
We also deplore the existing rule that will bar sellers of non-GM salmon (wild or farmed) from labeling it “non-GM”… and we deeply regret U.S. regulations that will allow sellers of GM salmon to hide its GM character.
Putting aside food-safety concerns—which must be addressed more seriously—this particular GM salmon may be actually an improvement over conventional farmed salmon, for two reasons:
Because they grow much faster, that may reduce the amount of wild fish required to reach harvest size… assuming they don't just eat the same amount as a non-GM farmed salmon in half the time.
AquaBounty also claims that their GM salmon are sterile and will be raised exclusively in shore-based, closed-containment tanks.
This matters greatly, because the use of ocean pens to raise salmon has been the central environmental and sustainability problem with salmon farming as practiced up to now.
Ocean pens allow fish to escape and interbreed with wild salmon and transfer disease and sea lice to wild salmon. And life-smothering fish food, waste and veterinarian drugs accumulate on the sea bottom under some fish farms.
To the extent that AquaBounty’s claims prove true, these differences from regular salmon farming would seem to mitigate the risks to wild salmon.
But in addition to the inferior flavor and texture associated with regular farmed salmon, these GM salmon would suffer from the same nutritional deficiencies as regular farmed salmon, compared with wild salmon:
More saturated fat
Much less vitamin D
Much higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats
*Most farmed salmon gain their red hue from the addition of synthetic forms of astaxanthin and/or canthaxanthin—two carotene-class antioxidants—to their feed. (Some farmed salmon are fed algae containing natural astaxanthin.) Wild salmon get their astaxanthin from krill and other zooplankton.
By comparison, authentic, sustainable wild salmon looks like a better value now more than ever.
Rather than go into the many criticisms that credible commentators have expressed about GM salmon, and the complex issue of GM foods, we suggest that you read these accounts:
Why is the FDA about to rubber-stamp GE salmon? (Grist online)
FDA Committee Split on Recommendations about Controversial Genetically Engineered Salmon (Center for Food Safety… click here to read and sign their petition)
Why the Debate Over GM Salmon Misses the Point (TIME magazine blog)
'Frankenfish' May Soon Be Spawning: Is Genetically Modified Salmon Safe? (TIME magazine blog)
Are Current Rules Adequate to Regulate Genetic Engineering? (Environmental Law Institute)