FDA Approves Genetically Engineered Salmon – But Is This A Good Thing?

For the past couple decades, AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based company, has been working on the production and promotion of their genetically engineered salmon, called “AquaAdvantage” (though some call it “frankenfish”). The fish is an Atlantic salmon that contains a growth gene from the Chinook salmon, as well as a gene from an ocean pout. The resulting engineered fish is able to grow larger and faster than a regular salmon, making it cheaper to produce.

Comparison of a genetically engineered salmon and a normal salmon at the same age.

Just before the end of 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its findings that AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon will not pose a threat to the environment and is safe to eat.  This means this fish could soon become the first ever genetically engineered animal allowed for human consumption – and actually it is considered an animal drug. The FDA also says they would not require the fish to be labeled as being engineered, stating it is essentially the same as any other farmed Atlantic salmon.

But many are taking issue with the FDA’s findings and it is has sparked an intense debate.

Conservationists fear that if these genetically engineered fish escaped their containment facilities and entered the oceans they could have devastating impacts on wild salmon populations or other fish. These super-fish would likely out-compete wild fish for food, habitats, and potentially mates. AquaBounty and the FDA say the risk of escapement is low, because they will produce the genetically engineered salmon in land-based facilities (the eggs will be produced in Canada and then shipped to Panama for growth to market size). But escapements from land based facilities are still possible. And while the fish are designed to be sterile, studies show up to 5% of the fish could still be fertile.

Some in the food industry are also concerned about whether these genetically modified fish are really safe to eat. Some think the safety tests conducted on these fish were not adequate.  There are concerns that these fish may pose a greater food allergy threat, and concerns about their elevated levels of insulin-like growth hormone (IGF-1), a known carcinogen. It seems that consumers may have apprehensions as well. According to the Ocean Conservancy, more than 90% of Americans believe these fish should be labeled.

But perhaps the bigger question, as others have pointed out – Is this questionable supply of genetically engineered fish even necessary?  And is it good for the seafood industry?

AquaBounty claims that their genetically engineered salmon is needed to meet growing demands and can help feed the world.

But is cheaper and more farmed salmon really a good thing?  I do not think so.

There is already a lot of farmed Atlantic salmon out there and it is not that good for our oceans or our health. One of the biggest problems with farmed Atlantic salmon is that a high of amount of wild fish are required to feed them. In fact, we have to take more pounds of fish out of the ocean to feed them, than the amount of farmed salmon we produce. So this results in a waste of fish. This is one reason why farmed Atlantic salmon are on the “avoid” list by many seafood rating groups. And, unlike wild salmon, farmed salmon often contain higher levels of PCBs. Because of this, experts recommend limiting your consumption of farmed salmon.

Further, we have a much better choice when it comes to salmon – a perfectly good supply of sustainable wild Alaska salmon. The Alaska salmon fishery is very well managed, and these salmon come without environmental and health risks. These salmon also support vibrant fisheries and ocean ecosystems, providing food for other commercially important species.

So if AquaBounty really wanted to solve the world’s fisheries problems, I think they would have been better off spending their time protecting and rebuilding other wild salmon populations, rather than genetically modifying an unsustainable fish.

I believe putting an environmentally risky genetically engineered fish on the market is a step in the wrong direction. What we need is better, healthier, sustainable fish.

The FDA’s findings on the genetically engineered salmon are now going through a period of public comments before final approval is given. Tell the FDA what you think!

And be sure to check out Blue Ocean Institute’s seafood rankings to learn about sustainable and healthy seafood options.


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.

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