Some call it “frankenfish,” while to others it’s just the next smart, inevitable move in modern food production. In any case, genetically altered salmon is just a pen stroke away from your local market. Our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering an application by AquaBounty Farms to permit sales of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, the first and probably precedent setting attempt to allow GE animals into our food supply. But is it a good idea? A few questions to ponder:
- Are genetically engineered (GE) salmon different from wild salmon? Yes. They are fundamentally different from wild or natural species. The transgenic salmon, engineered by a Massachusetts-based company AquaBounty, can reach market size twice as fast as regular salmon. Growth hormone genes from the Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean Pout that causes fish to eat year-round were spliced into Atlantic Salmon genes to create the fast-growing fish. Wild Atlantic Salmon take up to three years to mature, while AquaBounty’s fish mature in only 16 to 18 months. Other than the extreme growth-rate, AquaBounty claims the transgenic salmon is exactly identical to wild Atlantic salmon. Industry experts believe the fish will bring advantages to both farmers, who will be able to cash in on their bounty quicker, and the environment, since wild salmon populations are dwindling.
- Are GE fish safe to eat? Genetic engineering of fish is an experiment, so right now no one knows for certain whether these fish are safe to eat. We do know that the fish’s health could be compromised. According to an expert panel from the Royal Society of Canada, scientists have documented “deleterious consequences to fish morphology, respiratory capacity, and locomotion associated with the introduction of growth hormone (GH) gene constructs in some transgenic variants of salmonids, notably Pacific and Atlantic salmon.” The panel concluded that this “is the rule rather than the exception in fish … [and] has been manifested by changes to enzyme activity, gross anatomy, behavior and, in all likelihood, hormonal activity.” Poor health of the fish might have downstream impacts on those who eat the fish. The data submitted by AquaBounty to the FDA confirmed that manipulating salmon DNA with genes from other species changes the salmon’s hormone levels. AquaBounty’s data revealed significantly higher levels of IGF1 in its GE salmon. IGF1 is a hormone that is linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers in humans.
The FDA, currently examining the first commercial application for GE fish, is looking at it as a “New Animal Drug” rather than as a food product.
- How does AquaBounty get the foreign DNA into its GE salmon? One way to incorporate the foreign gene is to use viruses to “infect” cells with the new DNA. If a virus is used as a vector, a cancer risk is created.
- Does AquaBounty’s GE salmon contain novel proteins or other molecules produced by the transgenic organisms that could trigger allergies? The data submitted by AquaBounty to the FDA confirmed that the GE salmon had a greater allergenic potency. Allergic reactions, a known risk of genetically engineered foods, can result in serious trauma, even death.
- When people eat AquaBounty’s GE salmon, will the transgenic DNA be incorporated into the genomes of the bacteria in the human digestive tract? FDA’s food safety assessment of GE salmon did not include an investigation into whether it is safe to eat GE salmon DNA, but a human study conducted by the UK’s Food Standards Agency found that a single serving of genetically engineered soy can result in “horizontal gene transfer,” where the bacteria of the gut takes up the modified DNA from the soy. Further research needs to be done.
- Do GE salmon threaten wild salmon populations? Yes. Scientists at Purdue University in the U.S. have conducted a study demonstrating how GE fish could lead to the extinction of wild populations if released into open waters. The scientists found that certain GE fish had a mating advantage over wild species due to their unnaturally large size. In addition, their study showed that some GE fish did not produce as many viable offspring as their natural counterparts. This combination forces the population into decline. Using computer modeling, the Purdue scientists showed that it would take only 60 GE fish in a population of 60,000 wild fish to cause species extinction within 40 generations.
- How do regulations protect the environment from the risks of GE fish? They don’t. Currently no national or international regulations adequately protect the environment from the risks associated with GE fish. The first application for approval of GE fish anywhere in the world is being considered by the FDA in the U.S. This is completely inappropriate since the FDA has no relevant environmental experience and is not an appropriate body to deal with an international issue that affects the world’s oceans.
- If GE Fish are approved in the US how does this affect other countries? Once released into ocean ponds, fish will escape. Fish do not obey national boundaries so any release of GE fish will be international. The company involved also plans to sell GE fish eggs around the world. The release of GE fish is a matter of international concern in which we all have a stake, and to which every government should have an opportunity to say no.
- Don’t we need more food from GE fish to feed the growing population? It takes three to five pounds of fish meal and fish oil to produce one pound of farmed salmon. So GE salmon farming will actually reduce the amount of fish protein available in the world, not increase it.
- Won’t labeling protect consumers who want to avoid buying GE salmon? At this point, FDA does not require labeling of GE foods. Since 1992, the FDA has operated under the legal fiction that there is no risk associated with human consumption of genetically engineered plants and animals. As the FDA explains, under this policy, because DNA is Generally Recognized as Safe, modified DNA is considered safe, as well.
If all this sounds fishy to you, take action!