A genetic leap for salmon

Sensemaking / A genetic leap for salmon

A US ruling could put genetically modified fish, produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Massachusetts to reach full weight in under two years, on the menu.

17 Apr 2013

A US ruling could put genetically modified fish, produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Massachusetts to reach full weight in under two years, on the menu.

The first genetically modified (GM) animal approved for human consumption could be swimming onto America’s dinner plates soon. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released a draft assessment of the AquAdvantage salmon, stating that it has “no significant impact” on the environment and that it is “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon”.  

The fish contains a growth hormone gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon as well as genetic material from the ocean pout, an eel-like creature that contains antifreeze in its blood plasma. These modifications result in a fish that grows faster – reaching market weight in about 18 months as opposed to three years – and can be bred all year round.

The fish are produced by AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts-based company that is hatching the eggs in a facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and raising them in onshore containers in Panama. The company has been trying to gain approval for its innovation for nearly two decades, and maintains that the product will offer an antidote to overfishing, while bringing cost savings to farmers and consumers.

David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, says the fish provide a healthy alternative to eating imperilled wild species. “This technology offers the opportunity to make a product that sustains the environment and feeds a growing global population”, he says.

But environmental and consumer groups are less convinced. Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union, says the fish have an increased potential to cause allergic reactions and that the safety assessments are based on “poor quality data”. Under the pending regulations, the fish could only be farmed in Panama and no live species could enter the US. But Hansen maintains that creating conditions for a subarctic species to thrive in a tropical location will likely increase the environmental impact.

Martin Jaffa of the aquaculture consulting group Callander McDowell says that even if the fish is approved, it will struggle to find a market. “There is no demand for the product”, he says. “Farmers don’t want it, stores don’t want it, and consumers don’t want it.”

Then again, if the fish were to hit the shelves next year – the anticipated timeframe – consumers may be none the wiser. Unless the FDA concludes that the fish is substantially biologically different from the conventional Atlantic salmon, fish farmers will not be required to label AquAdvantage as a GM product. – Katherine Rowland

Photo: AquaBounty Technologies inc.

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