After 20 years of study and decades of controversy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has finally decided to deem a genetically modified animal as safe for human consumption, a first in the United States.
The animal in question is a salmon, created by AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts. The salmon have been genetically engineered to grow at twice the normal rate of conventionally-farmed salmon, prompting some to praise the GE salmon as a more sustainable alternative to traditionally farmed or line-caught salmon.
“Because they grow faster, they are able to get to market in around about half the time it takes for a conventional Atlantic salmon,” Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology cooperative extension specialist with University of California Davis’ Department of Animal Science, told ThinkProgress. “Because they get to market faster, they also use 25 percent less feed.”
The salmon were first created in 1989, using micro-injection to add a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from an ocean pout to an Atlantic salmon. Normally, salmon don’t grow during winter months, when their growth hormones essentially turn off to save energy in the face of a decrease in available food. The promoter of the ocean pout — an eel-like fish that grows year-round in freezing waters — allows the growth hormone of the Chinook salmon to function year round, helping the GE salmon grow at a much faster rate than non-GE salmon.
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According to the FDA, about two-thirds of the salmon eaten in the United States is farmed, mostly in net-pens that hold thousands of Atlantic salmon in open waters. While net-pen farming can be an efficient method of raising fish, there are a slew of environmental concerns associated with the practice, including disease-transmission, both within the net-pen and to native populations outside of the pens. Because of concerns about disease transmission, a lot of salmon farming operations use antibiotics, another controversial practice. In response to the growing distrust in salmon farming, several large-scale retailers, like Target and Costco, have chosen to supply only antibiotic-free farmed salmon, or have eschewed farmed salmon altogether. Fish farms also produce huge amounts of waste — according to the WorldWatch Institute, Scotland’s salmon-farming industry produces enough natural fish waste to equal the untreated sewage of 3.2 million people.
AquaBounty’s GE salmon aren’t raised in open waters, but in land-based systems, reducing the risk of disease spreading to outside populations or waste spreading into local waters. The Panama-based systems are also part of the company’s containment plan for keeping the fast-growing salmon from escaping into the wild and out-competing native populations — something that environmentalists have cited as a key concern regarding the GE fish.
“We need to prepare and have a good analysis of what happens if they do get out, and we don’t think that analysis is very good,” Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, which opposes the FDA’s approval of the fish, told ThinkProgress.
But AquaBounty and the FDA argue that there are numerous containment measures in place to ensure that doesn’t happen. In addition to being raised on land, the fish grown for food are all bred as triploid females, rendering them infertile. Even if the fish were to escape their land-based tanks and guard systems, they would face temperatures in the Panamanian rivers and equatorial waters that are much warmer than the cold waters that salmon usually stick to. And even if they managed to swim through the warm equatorial waters to the ocean, they would still need to travel to the North Atlantic or Pacific to meet up with other salmon with which they could compete.
Van Eenennaam, who served on the served on the FDA Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee that looked at AquaBounty’s salmon in 2010, said that while she won’t say that the fish could “never” accidentally enter into the wild, she doesn’t know what could be done “short of growing [the GE salmon] on Mars that would be more contained than what they are doing.”
Farming operations have been using conventional breeding to create faster-growing species of Atlantic salmon for years, Van Eenennaam said, arguing that those operations face fewer regulations than the GE salmon operation. She likened the emphasis on fast-growing salmon to broiler chickens (chickens grown for eating purposes), which have been bred for decades to increase their efficiency at turning feed into meat. Genetic engineering, she said, simply gives breeders another tool for increasing an animal’s efficiency.
“This is just one more breeding method that we can now potentially have access to to improve animals in ways that align with sustainability goals,” she said. “The less pound of food you need to grow a salmon, the smaller its environmental footprint.”
Food and Water Watch concedes that farmed salmon have been conventionally bred to grow faster, but rejects the idea that the practice creates a more environmentally-sustainable fishing model.
“We are no great fans of commercial salmon production in open net-pens,” Lovera said. “That’s a problem we already have. Do we need to add this to the mix?”
Food and Water Watch also raised concerns about the FDA’s approval process for the fish, which they claim lacked transparency. Other groups have raised concerns about potentially increased risks of allergic reactions to the GE salmon, with the Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, citing an “inadequate” assessment by the FDA.
“At the broadest level, we don’t have good ways to evaluate these new technologies,” Lovera said. “This was regulated as a veterinary drug, and that process leaves a lot to be desired with regards to transparency.”
Opponents also expressed disappointment at the government’s decision to make labeling GE salmon voluntary, which Lovera called “a real disservice to consumers.”
Despite FDA approval, the salmon will likely take years to reach U.S. markets, and will initially only be sold in small quantities, due to the limited capacity of the company’s Panama location. Currently, the FDA has approved just two facilities for the production of the GE salmon — a facility in Canada, where the eggs are produced, and the facility in Panama, where the fish are raised. If AquaBounty wants to create more facilities, those would be subject to a separate assessment of potential environmental impacts, according to Van Eenennaam.
But Lovera worries that the FDA’s approval of the salmon could inspire other countries to begin producing the salmon, potentially under less-than-rigorous environmental standards.
“A lot of countries use FDA approval as a green light,” she said. “This is just adding another risk to a system that already has problems.”