By Micah Cheek
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the sale of genetically modified salmon in the US, sparking conflict in seafood circles and setting a new precedent for genetically modified foods in the US market. Aqua Bounty, the company producing salmon modified to grow at a faster rate, was approved to sell their product, AquAdvantage Salmon, after data from their organization was analyzed along with data from other peer reviewed sources, determining that the health and environmental risks to the fish’s production are low, and that the genetically modified salmon is not nutritionally different than its conventionally-bred alternative.
Various environmental groups and seafood organizations have spoken out against the FDA’s decision, contending that the animal has the potential to cause serious damage if it escaped into the wild. Concerns over environmental damage and risks to human health have vocalized consumers and pushed many retailers to publicly announce their refusal to sell Aqua Bounty’s salmon. Aqua Bounty has declined an interview request for this story.
Dana Perls, Food and Technology Campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an environmental reform group, says that public concern is based in a lack of consensus in the scientific community over genetically modified foods. “Consumers have strongly vocalized that they don’t want to eat GMO seafood or meat,” says Perls. “There are far too many risks for consumers to feel that this is sustainable or healthy; in fact, scientific studies point to the opposite.”
Critics of the FDA approval contend that using studies that Aqua Bounty itself conducted is unacceptable, as Aqua Bounty has a stake in the results of the findings. One document used to counter the FDA’s decision is a draft risk assessment of the environmental and human health risks of Aqua Bounty’s salmon conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Information in the assessment suggests that the genetic modification to the salmon can produce fish with inconsistent growth rates. This, groups suggest, indicates that the genetic modification process is not well-controlled or predictable. While the assessment does state that the salmon’s accelerated growth rates are highly variable based on environment, a summary of the assessment released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada goes on to indicate that AquAdvantage salmon pose a low risk to both the Canadian environment and human health.
Jacqueline Claudia, CEO of Love The Wild and formerly the Chief Strategy Officer of Kanpachi Farms, says that the risks involved in adding GMO fish to the menu have been overblown. It should be noted that Love The Wild will not be using genetically modified seafood in its products. “From a scientific perspective, a lot of issues in the media are just not true,” Claudia says. For instance, there have been concerns that escaped genetically modified fish could wreak environmental havoc if they escape. “In order to produce this gene[the genetic modification that makes the salmon grow faster], what happens is you get all females. And only 1.1 percent of those fish are capable of reproducing,” says Claudia. While the FDA’s draft risk assessment says that Aqua Bounty’s methods have been 99.8 percent effective at inducing sterility, the assessment by Fisheries and Oceans Canada says that Aqua Bounty only ensured an effectiveness of at least 95 percent. Claudia continues, “Let’s just say the stars align and it lands in the right gravel bed and finds a male salmon. The chances of them reproducing are really ridiculously small.” Claudia adds that part of the reason the genetically modified salmon grow so fast is because they have to eat all through the year, rather than hibernating as conventional salmon do. This, plus the fact that the modified fish have smaller fins than conventional varieties, suggests that any progeny of an escaped modified salmon would be unfit to live in the wild and pass along their genes.
Claudia believes that increasing yields with genetic modification has the potential to help feed the world in a less expensive and more environmentally responsible way. In addition, she believes that in the future, organisms could be modified to be disease resistant, reducing the need for antibiotics. “If people were to understand the science, we could increase the welfare of the animals.” While she believes the potential benefits of genetically modified fish are high, she believes fisheries should focus on selective breeding methods first, as the limits of that kind of growth optimization have not been fully reached.
While argument in the environmental and scientific communities continues, public opinion has already begun to turn the tide economically. In a 2013 New York Times poll, three-quarters of respondents said they would not eat genetically modified fish. A Friends of the Earth petition urging retailers to publicly refuse to sell genetically modified salmon has been signed by some heavy hitters in grocery retail. ”Customers have spoken, and we have seen companies such as Kroger and Costco stand up as leaders in seafood sustainability,” says Perl. “Fishing communities around the world are also rejecting GMO salmon because of environmental risks and the economic impacts it could have.” With such a strong public reaction, it is difficult to see where AquAdvantage salmon’s place would be in the US market. “We’ve had pretty much every grocery chain refuse to sell it; I struggle to see how anyone will sell it,” adds Claudia. “I don’t think we’ll see a lot more GMO fish if the first one in the market is just flatly rejected.”