A new type of Atlantic salmon, engineered by biotech firm AquaBounty Technologies, could double world production of the fish. But fears of “Frankenfish” and other concerns might prevent this from happening.
Known as AquAdvantage Salmon, or AAS, the GM salmon matures twice as fast as conventional salmon. The fish recently cleared a big regulatory hurdle in Canada, making it one step closer to being approved in the U.S., which begs the question: is GM salmon safe?
The answer is, simply, yes. In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been reviewing the AAS since 1996, announced that the fish is “highly unlikely to cause any significant effects on the environment” and that it is “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.”
In November, Canada approved AquaBounty’s request to export up to 100,000 GM fish eggs a year from a hatchery in Prince Edward Island to a site high in the Panamanian rainforest. The decision was the first time any government had given the green light to commercial-scale production involving a GM food animal.
Despite the fish clearing these rigorous regulatory hurdles, many opponents of genetic modification claim that review from the FDA and other agencies fails to address “unintended consequences”—an often unfounded, all too common term in the fight against GMOs.
“The AquAdvantage salmon studies, by their very design, underreport or fail to detect health problems and abnormalities in the fish,” said Nina Mak, a research analyst with the American Anti-Vivisection Society, which pioneered a letter to the FDA from 22 U.S. animal protection agencies. “Yet we know that genetic engineering is fraught with failures and unintended consequences.”
There is still no evidence that GM salmon, like other GM products, is potentially harmful compared to conventional salmon. Despite this, anti-GMO activists continue to hope scare tactics, like the imagery evoked by the terms “Frankenfish” and “unintended consequences,” will cause many to fear and overcomplicate the technology, which is actually quite simple.
AquaBounty introduced a single gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon into their AAS, which is what allows for the faster maturation. Although it includes this benefit, the AAS produces the same amount of growth hormone as conventional salmon. AquaBounty achieves this by integrating a molecular switch, known as a promoter, from an antifreeze protein into the fish genome, though the AAS do not produce the antifreeze protein.
And for those worried that the GM salmon will contaminate populations of conventional salmon, AquaBounty has engineered all AAS to be sterile females, ensuring no gene flow to wild populations, even if the somehow managed to escape the company’s production facilities.
However, according to the Motley Fool’s Maxx Chatsko, regulatory oversight will not prevent backlash from many ideologically opposed to genetic modification:
Engineered fish will undoubtedly encounter some backlash from consumers—with Whole Foods Market already stating it would ban them from its stores—but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that they were safe to eat in 2010. Moreover, considering that Atlantic salmon hold roughly 40,000 genes — compared to about 24,000 genes for humans — only 0.0025% of the genome has been altered. Aside from growth, there are no discernible differences between AquaBounty’s engineered product and a wild Atlantic salmon.
As the FDA continues to inch closer towards approving the AquAdvantage Salmon, the debate over the safety of GM salmon will only get more heated. But that shouldn’t detract from the evidence, which points to GM salmon being just as safe as its conventional counterparts.