On November 19, 2015, the Food and Drug Administration announced:
After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.
In a historic step, the FDA approved AquaBounty Technologies’ AquAdvantage Salmon for commercial sale. The AquAdvantage Salmon is the first GMO animal to earn such approval. You can read the full announcement and accompanying documents here.
So, what does this mean for consumers and should you be concerned?
Why Modify a Fish?
The market for salmon has exploded! Today, the consumption of salmon is three times higher than it was in the 1980’s. In the last decade, the demand for salmon has increased 20%. As you might imagine, this market increase has spurred the development and growth of aquaculture, or fish farms. In fact, 70% of the global salmon market is now supplied by aquaculture. The United States, the largest market for farmed salmon, consumed 353,000 tons of of it in 2013.
For years, environmental groups have decried the impact of farmed salmon. (Ironically, as I’ll discuss below, these groups are still opposed to a the AquAdvantage salmon.) The World Wildlife Foundation went so far as to create an entire list of things it demanded the industry to do clean up their act. The concerns include allowing genetically inferior fish to escape, increasing the risk of parasites and disease for wild salmon, inefficient rates of feed conversion (it used to take 7 pounds of food to raise 1 pound of salmon), and pollution.
To be fair, even environmental activist groups like the WWF agree that farmed salmon’s impact on the environment is drastically decreasing. Also, I certainly don’t mean to beat up on aquaculture at all. Just like other farmers, fish farmers no doubt realize that preserving natural resources are vital for them to continue their business. It also speaks volumes that the environmental impact of aquaculture is getting better.
But what I do know is that, just like in other areas of agriculture, science can help us improve our production methods and biotechnology can help us be better stewards of the environment. That’s exactly what happened here.
The AquAdvantage fish was genetically modified to grow faster, which allows it to arrive on market faster, saving resources and reducing the impact on the environment. This was achieved by inserting growth promotion genes from the Chinook salmon, which allows it to grow faster. It also included a gene from the fish known as an ocean pout that makes sure the gene from the Chinook salmon is active. As Eric Hallerman, fish conservation scientist at Virginia Tech University, explained to Wired, the regular salmon’s growth hormones turn off during the winter months. Inserting the growth hormone from the ocean pout ensures that the gene is always working.
Is It Safe?
Generally, any genetically modified crops that make it to market take a long time and a lot of research. In fact, GMOs are usually reviewed by several federal government agencies for about a decade, with millions of dollars of research being conducted.
The difference with the AquAdvantage salmon is that it was reviewed by the FDA for 20 years!
That’s right, the fish was originally submitted to the FDA for approval in the early 1990’s. Part of the reason it took so long was that the FDA didn’t really have a system in place for reviewing safety of a GMO animal; it had only looked at plants before. However, the other side of the story was that the FDA wanted to consider all of the environmental concerns about the fish as well, including what happens if they escape (more on this in a second).
Let’s first consider the safety of the fish. The FDA has concluded that food derived from the AdquAdvantage salmon is just as safe to eat as food from non-GE Atlantic salmon. Also, the FDA determined that the GMO salmon’s nutritional profile is comparable to that of a non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon. The FDA’s review included evaluation of “extensive data” submitted both by AquaBounty Technologies and other peer-reviewed data. Upon completing their review of the research, the FDA concluded:
The data demonstrated that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the sponsor’s claim about faster growth.
So, the GMO salmon is safe for human consumption, safe for the fish, and actually does what AquaBounties says it does. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – the FDA had plenty of research, studies, and data regarding the AquAdvantage Salmon to review before it made this decision.
As mentioned, another concern is what happens to wild fish if these GMO fish escape. This is one of the things that took the FDA so long to sort out, and many containment efforts have been put in place. The FDA announcement stated:
FDA assessed the environmental impacts of approving this application and found that the approval would not have a significant impact on the environment of the United States. That’s because the multiple containment measures the company will use in the land-based facilities in Panama and Canada make it extremely unlikely that the fish could escape and establish themselves in the wild.
In other words, AquAdvantage has gone to some pretty significant lengths to ensure that this will not happen! In fact, there are currently only 2 production facilities that are approved for GMO salmon, and part of that choice had to do with preventing these fish from making it into the wild. At Biology Fortified, Anastasia Bodnar has wonderfully detailed and explained these containment efforts, which include biological, physical, and environmental containment efforts.
You can see the full environmental risk assessment submitted to the FDA for AquAdvantage here.
Opposition Loud and Boisterous
Smear campaigns against the gmo salmon have been long, long in the making. Dubbed the “Frankenfish” by activists, campaigns have been underway for years to petition the FDA to not approve the fish and, in the alternative, pressure retailers to not sell it. As a result, Costco has declared that it will not sell the the GMO fish at this time, which could hit supermarket shelves within two years. Other retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, and Kroger have also said they will not sell the AquAdvantage Salmon.
In addition, a lawsuit has already been filed against the FDA by the Center for Food Safety, a well-funded organization opposed to genetically modified foods, allegedly based on concerns about the health and safety of the fish and worries the fish could escape into the wild. Again, however, the FDA and AquAdvantage have taken lengthy steps to prevent this from happening and to protect wild fish populations. The FDA also reviewed the effects on the fish itself, and found none that were detrimental.
It always amazes me that the same claims are always repeated time and time again, despite a lack of evidence and despite having any merit. The Center for Food Safety laments that there hasn’t been enough testing, but the FDA just performed “an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review.” What seems even more a mystery to me is that, over the course of 20 years, none of the anti-GMO activists managed to put together a single scientific study showing that the fish was detrimental to human health or the environment. If they’re so convinced that it’s dangerous or bad (based on what?), how about just submit to the FDA a study demonstrating that? Such a move would have prevented any and all approval by the FDA.
It’s no coincidence that, instead, they decided to focus on petitioning retailers and drumming up opposition in the public. Again, this isn’t about science, food safety, or the environment to them; this is about ending the use of biotechnology because it suits their financial interests.
On the other hand, I am excited for this prospect. It brings with it a potential for more sustainable practices in animal agriculture, innovative solutions to unique problems in third world countries, and a comprehensive process for FDA approval for genetically modified animals. The fish should be on the market within 2 years…and I can’t wait to try it!