I had to write a short, informative, and “unbiased” piece for my work the other month. Posting it here, since it took me a good chunk of the day! 🙂
On November 19th, 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first genetically modified (GM) animal intended for human consumption- AquAdvantage Salmon. The agency reached its decision after 20 years of evaluating research and opinions from a range of sources, including research submitted by the developers themselves (AquaBounty Technologies, a small company in Massachusetts), available peer-reviewed scientific literature, and comments from public hearings and the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee. Ultimately, the FDA concluded that the product is safe for humans and animals to eat.
What makes AquAdvantage Salmon unique is that it grows 40% quicker than non-modified farm-raised Atlantic salmon. This effect is achieved by inserting fertilized Atlantic salmon eggs with 1) a growth hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook (or “king”) salmon, and 2) a genetic promoter from an ocean pout fish. This promoter keeps the added gene active all year round, while salmon’s own growth hormone gene is only active in the warmer months. These modifications will not lead to any measurable differences in the GM salmon’s look, taste, or it’s ultimate size and nutrition value, but they will make it grow to adult size quicker.
Clearly, growing almost twice as fast is a considerable economic advantage to fish farmers. In addition, the current practice of catching Wild Atlantic salmon for human consumption is not sustainable as the world’s oceans are already seeing declining fishing yields. Another environmental advantage is a reduced carbon footprint of the fishing industry, as the modified salmon can be grown in captivity close to human populations and reduce transportation costs (in the U.S., 95% of salmon is imported). To the consumer, these factors would potentially result in lower prices and an opportunity to make salmon (a healthy protein choice, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) a more affordable part of their diet.
While the FDA has concluded the GM salmon safe to eat, consumers and public interest groups raise important concerns. One potential issue is the fish escaping into the wild and affecting the environment (e.g. competing with wild salmon for food or mating with it and introducing new hybrid species). The escape scenario, however, is highly unlikely when considering the “multiple and redundant” safety measures in place. First, GM salmon can be raised only in land-based contained tanks in Canada and Panama. Second, there are multiple physical barriers placed in both the tanks and plumbing to prevent the escape of fish and eggs. Lastly, the AquAdvantage salmon is female and sterile, making interbreeding highly unlikely.
In terms of human health implications, Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs) already raise concerns among consumers as people consider possible long-term effects from such a novel technology: 57% of Americans surveyed in 2015 said GMOs were unsafe and 67% stated that scientists do not clearly understand their health effects (Pew Research Center). In contrast, the international non-profit organization AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Sciences) is more confident about our current state of knowledge, stating that:
“the science is quite clear: […] consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques”.
(Full statement: AAAS.org) While GM salmon is now approved for sale (though it will take about two years to reach the market), some retailers have already pledged to avoid the product (e.g. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s) reflecting such consumer worries.
The Labeling Question
One aspect of the FDA ruling saw particular opposition from public groups: GM salmon will not require labeling. While the FDA issued two recommendations for manufacturers to voluntarily label the product, the agency can only require additional labeling if a material difference is present between a GM and non-GM salmon (e.g. differences in nutritional profile). As no such material distinction has been found, a mandatory labeling might incorrectly imply an essential difference between the two.
Another issue with requiring labeling is that a “genetically modified” food is not necessary a meaningful category, and the choice of foods to include in it would be quite arbitrary. After all, humans have been modifying the food supply in various ways for quite some time. This includes “wide cross” hybridization resulting in plants not found in nature (including “heirloom” plant varieties often perceived as more “natural”). Another example is radiation and chemical mutagens that are used on seeds to generate new strains (e.g. a Ruby Red grapefruit, which can carry the “organic” label, was created via mutation due to radiation exposure). In comparison to these methods, genetic engineering is arguably the most precise and predictable technique at the moment.
As a consumer, you have a chance to read and comment on the FDA’s proposed guidelines for the industry’s voluntary labeling of GM salmon until January 25, 2016: FDA Regulations