The sale of genetically modified (GM) animals for consumption has been permitted in the United States for the first time. After 20 years of analysis and review, the FDA has approved AquaBounty Technologies’ transgenic salmon.
The new breed, known as the AquaAdvantage salmon, contains the Atlantic salmon genome with the addition of genes from two other fish species. Scientists artificially introduced a gene for a growth hormone from a Chinook, the largest species of Pacific salmon, and super-activated this gene by introducing a ‘promoter gene’ taken from an Ocean pout, a fish that can survive and grow in near freezing waters due to antifreeze proteins in its blood. With this combination, instead of switching off in colder months like in normal salmon, the AquaAdvantage salmon’s growth hormone is active all year round.
These alterations create fish that grow twice the rate and require 25% less food to reach the same weight as the Pacific salmon that provides nearly all of its genetic code.
The AquaAdvantage salmon was created in the early 1990s, submitted for approval in 1995, and just given the green light for sanctioned production and consumption last month. So why did the process take 20 years? As the first GM animal created for human consumption, this was new for the FDA. They did not yet have a regulatory pathway for GM livestock to become food . The recombinant DNA introduced into animals, like the two genes mentioned previously, meet the FDA definition of a drug. As a consequence of this classification, regulation of GM animals falls under the animal drug provisions in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. It was only in 2009 (14 years after submission) that the FDA published guidance on regulating genetically engineered animals, detailing what GM animal producers needed to do to meet obligations under the law.
Now that there is a pathway and an approved GM animal for consumption, will this open up the floodgates? Will GM animals as food become more common as the regulatory process becomes more efficient?
AquaBounty Technologies are not alone in developing GM livestock. Others are just waiting to see if their investment would be profitable.
Despite passing 20 years of evaluations, the genetically engineered fish is already facing backlash from environmental groups and concerned consumers. A main concern is that if the AquaAdvantage salmon were to make it into the wild, it would out-compete native species because of its fast growth, and so could upset the balance of ecosystems.
So, how has this GM fish ever been cleared? Well, those at AquaBounty Technologies have taken numerous measures to ensure that there is no opportunity their fish to cause any environmental harm. The fish has only been cleared to be grown in above-ground tanks in the Panamanian mountains, where to interbreed with wild populations they would need to escape, find a river, swim all the way to the ocean, survive the warm equatorial waters to which they are not adapted, then make their way thousands of miles to the North Atlantic or North Pacific. And even if such a swashbuckling fish did meet up with other salmon, its mating attempts will be futile. The AquaAdvantage salmon is sterile. Scientists have made the fish triploids, meaning that their chromosomes cannot replicate and that successful breeding is nearly impossible. Are you convinced by these claims?
Some argue that it’s still not enough. Sterilisation is not perfect. It has a 5% failure rate. And, although the fish are grown in the Panamanian mountains, the egg production facility is in Prince Edward Island (in Eastern Canada). While still highly unlikely, could something go wrong allowing GM salmon eggs to make their way into the North Atlantic?
Provided the fish never get out and everything goes according to plan, who is going to purchase the first GM fish? Over 60 grocery store chains in the US have vowed not to sell the fish and a NYT poll found that 75% of respondents would not eat GM salmon.
But will you even know if you’re buying it? As of now, there is no regulation requiring the AquaAdvantage fish to be labelled as GM. The FDA has approved the fish – but how it will fare in the market remains to be seen.
BBC News (19 November 2015) 'US approves genetically modified salmon for food'
FDA: Genetically Engineered Animals (19 November 2015) 'AquaAdvantage Salmon'