Is Genetically Engineered Salmon Safe?
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Frankenfish could be on your dinner plate by the end of the year.
On December 21, at the very end of the last business day before Christmas week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly released its environmental assessment that found "no significant impact" from the controversial AquaBounty AquaAdvantage transgenic salmon. We're now in a 60 day comment period that ends on February 25, at which time the FDA is widely expected to initiate formal approval.
What is the rationale behind genetically engineered salmon? Why have scientists spliced genes from an eel-like creature called the ocean pout into the genome of the Atlantic salmon? These genes crank out growth hormone year-round, resulting in a fish that grows faster, cutting the time to reach market weight almost in half. This could mean cost savings for fish farmers, leading to higher profits for the salmon farming industry and (they promise) lower prices for consumers.
But there are massively disturbing ethical, environmental, and health concerns that make the introduction of Frankenfish highly controversial.
Corporations Given the Power to Create Life
Humans have been using natural selection for years to favor certain genetic expressions in animals and plants. But natural selection on the farm is entirely different than taking genes from two or more completely different creatures, and splicing them together in a laboratory.
Some people are concerned that the power to create new life now sits in the hands of corporate interests. Others are disturbed by the notion of eating genetically engineered animals when there isn't even so much as a label to give them choice in the matter.
With countless more genetically engineered animal creations waiting for approval, the release of genetically engineered salmon could lead to a plethora of new life forms coming onto the market. John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution and many other best-sellers about food, health and the environment, calls this "Pandora's Pantry."
Impact on Oceans and Wild Salmon
AquaBounty, the company behind the first Frankenfish, insists that their creation poses no threat to wild salmon populations. But research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a release of just sixty GE salmon into a wild population of 60,000 would lead to the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 fish generations.
AquaBounty insists that their fish will be raised in controlled pens and will never be released into the ocean, and that besides, their fish will be sterile. But every year, millions of farmed fish escape from fish farms into the wild. It's true that initial introduction of AquaBounty's fish is slated for Panama in highly controlled pens. But AquaBounty is planning to market the eggs, not the fish. Once the production of GE fish becomes commercialized, it will be impossible to control the whereabouts of every single individual and assure compliance with appropriate containment measures. Some degree of release may be inevitable.
As to sterile fish, at present, there is no guaranteed method to produce 100% sterility. In fact, the FDA's most recent study found that five percent of the animals were in fact fertile. If large numbers of fish escape, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that some fertile fish might not only survive in the wild, but thrive. Because AquaAdvantage fish grow many times faster, and become mature much more quickly, than wild salmon, they may have the ability to outcompete wild salmon for food, and to reproduce at a much faster rate.