While many people were occupied with end-of-year preparations and festivities, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was busy too – it released a favorable environmental assessment of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, a move that paves the way for the agency’s approval of the fish for human consumption. This will be the first time in U.S. history that a genetically modified animal can be sold as food in the U.S. for consumers, and it is bad news for those concerned about the potential environmental and human health effects of genetically modified foods – more FDA approvals of other GE animals are likely to follow.
The fish in question is the AquAdvantage salmon, developed by a company called AquaBounty Technologies. AquAdvantage salmon are Atlantic salmon whose eggs have been injected with genes from two other species of fish: ocean pout and Chinook salmon. The company claims that these genes cause the modified salmon to grow faster than their non-GE counterparts. If approved, AquAdvantage eggs will be produced at a plant in Canada, and then shipped to a facility in Panama, where the fish will be hatched, raised in tanks, collected, and processed, then shipped to the U.S. for sale.
The FDA’s environmental review centered on whether there is a risk that AquAdvantage salmon would escape or be released from their production facilities, causing harm to wild fish populations within the United States. Because the facilities are not in the United States, and GE salmon will be all female and they say, effectively sterile, the FDA concluded that the risk of harm to the U.S. is remote.
The many critics of the FDA’s assessment say that the review was not nearly comprehensive enough, that it ignored the risk that some of the fish may be fertile (and thus if any escape they may reproduce in the wild), and that the FDA has not properly considered potential health effects of eating GE fish.
Concerned that genetic alteration of fish might change its nutritional properties in harmful ways, the consumer advocacy groups Food & Water Watch, Consumers Union, and the Center for Food Safety have urged the FDA to conduct a more rigorous food safety review than is currently required. (GE technology is currently treated by the agency as a drug administered to animals rather than as an additive that might alter the properties of the food.) Consumers too are skeptical of GE technology—polls show the vast majority of U.S. consumers don’t want the FDA to approve GE salmon.
Even without food safety concerns, AquBounty’s GE salmon isn’t a requirement to increase domestic availability of seafood. Aquaponics – raising fish in tanks (similar to an aquarium) together with plants in one closed-loop recirculating system – can achieve fast growth rates for fish, making genetic modification to artificially enhance growth unnecessary. Essentially, these farms mimic a natural ecosystem, where plants and fish have a mutually beneficial relationship. And because these are entirely closed systems, they can grow a wide range of fish without concerns about escape – especially fish that local fishermen don’t catch and sell. So these farms actually ADD seafood to the local economy, rather than compete with local fishermen. Further, recirculating farms are energy, space and water efficient – and scalable – from the size of a desktop for demonstration or personal use to a larger facility for commercial farming. This means these farms can be located just about anywhere: rooftops, abandoned lots, unused buildings, even basements – in the very communities that will use the products. This cuts down on the need for shipping and refrigeration – and reduces use of fuel (and thus environmental impacts) and production costs too. These savings can be passed on to consumers – making good food more affordable and fresher. Why test GE technology on U.S. consumers when there are sustainable and more natural ways of achieving the benefits claimed from GE salmon?
Before the FDA makes its final decision on approval, it will collect and consider comments from the public on its preliminary finding of no significant environmental impact. To leave your comment, go to the online government regulations page and click on “Comment Now” in the upper right corner. The deadline is February 25. You can also read the assessment there in PDF form.