The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved genetically modified salmon for sale and human consumption in the US. It is estimated that up to 80% of processed food sold in the US already contains some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but this is the first time that an animal-derived food has been approved.
The AquAdvantage Salmon, produced by AquaBounty, can grow to market size in 18 months – half the time of a conventional salmon. This is possible because the AquAdvantage is similar to an Atlantic salmon but is injected with a growth hormone from a Pacific salmon. This causes it to grow more quickly, and this is moderated by a gene promoter from a fish called an ocean pout, promoting year-round rather than seasonal growth. The promoter does not contain code that is ‘alien’ to the salmon; rather it serves to control the activity of an existing gene.
The fish was first produced by AquaBounty in 1995 and to date ten generations of AquAdvantage salmon have been raised. The FDA’s decision has been based on the data collected from these ten generations and on the peer-reviewed journal articles and studies of them.
The fish’s rapid growth gives it various environmental advantages over non-GMO salmon. Although it consumes a similar amount of food to grow to a similar size, the AquAdvantage only needs to be kept in energy-intensive farm conditions for half as long. Additionally it can be raised in inland tanks near to urban areas, reducing food miles. The tank-based farming method also avoids human interference and reduces the impact on ecosystems damaged by previous over fishing.
However, concerns have been raised by environmental groups over the risks posed by the GMO fish entering the natural environment: an egg production facility is located close to an estuary. The GMO salmon has noticeably different behaviour from the non-GMO salmon, preferring to be solitary rather than swimming in groups and with different feeding patterns, so if released the AquAdvantage could affect the ecosystem in unpredictable ways. AquaBounty currently plans to use only sterile, female fish to obviate the risk of interbreeding and spreading of modified genes should escape occur.
One of the most controversial clauses of the FDA’s agreement is that AquaBounty have no obligation to label the fish as GMO when it is sold to the public. This means that customers will have no choice about whether to purchase GMO fish or not, which problematical since this is the first genetically modified meat product to be sold and the effects on humans, including allergens, are not fully known. By contrast, under EU regulation, all GM food must be labeled clearly for the customer. In the UK no GM food crops are currently being grown and the storage of imported GM produce is tightly regulated by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).