On 19 November 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that a new GMO salmon, called AquAdvantage, is just as safe as any other salmon for consumption. The FDA based their decision on boatloads of data submitted by the company that developed the GMO salmon, Aqua Bounty Technologies, along with independent peer-reviewed data.
The approval process, taking nearly 20 years, for this transgenic salmon far exceeded the process required for pharmaceutical drug approval. The original application was filed in 1996, and data from 10 generations of the salmon had to be submitted to the FDA. It would be a ridiculous myth to claim that the FDA just bowed to the GMO salmon industry.
Of course, just like every other genetically-modified food ever developed, fear and loathing takes precedence over logic and scientific evidence. A major grocery store chain in the USA, Costco, has refused to market the fish, followed by other expensive grocery chains like Whole Foods, a promoter of pseudoscience in foods. A few countries have even written new regulations to block its import.
As can be expected, any group that doesn’t agree with the scientific evidence, turns to courts to help them out. Anti-vaccine and anti-climate change radicals love to do this, though they usually fail. In the case of the GMO salmon, the radical anti-GMO group, Center for Food Safety, has announced that they will proceed with a lawsuit to block introduction of this fish. Once again, scientific evidence is ignored or cherry-picked in lieu of the pre-existing conclusion that GMO salmon is unsafe.
Time to look at this story with a bit more of a critical, skeptical analysis.
What is GMO salmon?
AquAdvantage GMO salmon contain one growth hormone-regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon and one promoter gene from another fish, the ocean pout, were added to the Atlantic salmon’s approximately 40,000 genes. In other words, two genes were added, one from a very closely related species from the Pacific, and another gene from another fish, making up around 0.005% of the total genetic material in the genetically modified salmon.
In other words, if you see the pejorative, “frankenfish” as a descriptive of the GMO salmon, it’s not. A tiny number of genes have been modified, probably a rate lower than the background mutation rate of genes in salmon.
The effect of these genes is to enable year-round growth of the modified salmon, instead of the typical spring and summer growth of the Atlantic salmon. The genetic modifications increase the speed at which the fish grows, without affecting its ultimate size or other qualities. The fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.
The AquAdvantage genetically modified salmon is intended for aquaculture only – that is, the fish will be raised separated from wild salmon populations. In fact, Aqua Bounty Technologies, which built a test farm in Panama, and will build another one in Quebec, had to show the FDA that the risk of contamination with wild populations of similar salmonid fish was nearly nonexistent.
In reviewing the data, the FDA stated that:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]The FDA scientists rigorously evaluated extensive data submitted by the manufacturer, AquaBounty Technologies, and other peer-reviewed data, to assess whether AquAdvantage salmon met the criteria for approval established by law; namely, safety and effectiveness. 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.
In addition, 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.[/infobox]
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Safety of GMO salmon
We need to look at the safety issue from two perspectives: human consumption and the environment. As with every discussion with respect to the science of GMOs, it’s complicated.
With respect to human consumption, the FDA found nothing concerning. Let’s be clear, the genes transferred to the Atlantic salmon are from other fish, one of which is a closely related species.
But that’s irrelevant. The genes aren’t going to harm you, because these genes cannot be transferred to you, they cannot induce you or your children to grow faster, they cannot cause cancer (at least no more or less than the incidence of cancer from eating any other fish), and they cannot make you grow an eye in the middle of your chest (though that would be kind of cool).
As I’ve written dozens of times, the DNA of foods is broken down into nucleic acids before absorbed. Nucleic acids are the same across every single species on this planet, and there’s no difference between the nucleic acids in a GMO salmon and the ones in your own body. To believe that somehow the two transgenic genes (as opposed to the 40,000 other ones) are going to induce some harm in a human is illogical, unscientific, and implausible.
On the other hand, let’s look at the environmental evidence. And I’m going to look at it broadly from the planet’s perspective rather than just from this particular GMO salmon.
Yes, there is some evidence that GMO salmon, if it were to get out into the wild, could out-compete native salmon. On the other hand, there is very good evidence that wild salmon would out-compete the GMO salmon in natural mating areas. There appears to be more unbiased published evidence that GMO salmon would have little or no effect on the environment.
Furthermore, the salmon are grown in warehouses on land (yeah, I had to read it twice), not in pens near the ocean, reducing the risk of gene transfer to wild stocks to nearly 0.
And if we’re going to look at this broadly, we should look at how efficient these GMO salmon are in converting feed to protein – to make 1 kg of beef, they need 8 kg of feed; on the other hand, 1 kg of feed makes 1 kg of salmon. If we’re looking at efficient use of limited resources, these fish should be considered a miracle food. (Please don’t say that.)
In fact, the FDA, in reviewing all of the data (pdf), concluded that:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]FDA has carefully considered the potential environmental impacts of the proposed action and at this time has made a preliminary determination that this action would not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment in the United States.[/infobox]
But the environmental issues are substantially greater than the GMO salmon itself. Salmon stocks in the wild have dropped significantly over the past two decades. Salmon is considered an important food, because of its quality and high level of proteins. And, that whole omega-3 fish oil belief has put additional pressure on salmon stocks in the wild. As prices for the fish go up, more and more pressure is placed on stocks, which cause those stocks to drop (thereby, increasing the price again).
In Alaska, several populations of salmon have to be managed carefully, which reduces the supply of salmon, which increases the price. Other reports have stated that the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the USA to be at a “crisis” level. Similar concerns have been expressed by governmental and non-governmental agencies with respect to Atlantic salmon stocks.
So, we can’t look at the environmental issues of GMO salmon strictly from a negative point of view. We have to also weigh the positive environmental aspects, such as decreased pressure on wild salmon fisheries. We are destroying our oceans, one of the best, high quality protein sources, and if aquaculture can replace a lot of that pressure, that’s good for the environment and good for fisheries.
Let me make a bold statement – environmental groups should be strongly supporting this GMO salmon, not fear-mongering with pseudoscience.
Furthermore, I’ve been hammering home a point about GMO foods of all kinds – they lower the cost of food, which helps those who need to afford more high quality protein sources. Cheaper GMO salmon helps humanity – how can we ignore that?
AquAdvantage GMO salmon are great for humanity and great for the environment. I can’t wait to buy my first one, and make it into lox for my bagels. Nom nom.
- Fitzpatrick JL, Akbarashandiz H, Sakhrani D, Biagi CA, Pitcher TE, Devlin RH. Cultured growth hormone transgenic salmon are reproductively out-competed by wild-reared salmon in semi-natural mating arenas. Aquaculture 2011 Feb 25;312(1-4): 185-91. doi:10.1016/j.aquaculture.2010.11.044
- Moreau DT, Conway C, Fleming IA. Reproductive performance of alternative male phenotypes of growth hormone transgenic Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Evol Appl. 2011 Nov;4(6):736-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-4571.2011.00196.x. Epub 2011 Jul 4. PubMed PMID: 25568019; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3352541.