The Food and Drug Administration in the United States is currently reviewing the application for what would be the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption. AquAdvantage, the GMO salmon developed by the American company Aquabounty, carries a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon as well as a genetic on-switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon. The on-switch allows the animal to produce growth hormone even in cold weather, unlike a normal salmon, bringing its weight to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years.
Critics throughout the world have echoed the same concern: What are the ramifications of an escaped, faster-growing fish competing with its wild cousin for food and mates? AquaBounty has responded that farming would be carried inland to prevent such a threat – a reality difficult to imagine, since 90% of existing salmon farms are offshore. And only sterile females would be sold, adds Ronald L. Stotish, the company’s chief executive.
This issue, which is only one of the problems affecting fish farming, monopolizes most of the attention in the current debate to the detriment of other pressing problems. In a recent article in Le Monde, François Bonhomme, a researcher at the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution, points out the ecological risk inherent to intensive production units. They are pathogens’ pools, he says, as well as a source of pollution for the environment.
The other key question is whether AquAdvantage is a potential threat to human health. Does the fish’s modified metabolism also change its ability to store toxins? This is a question that the FDA is expected to answer in the coming months. Unfortunately, its answers will not be challenged as the entire application process for genetically engineered animals is confidential. A public meeting is expected to be held where most of the data presented by AquaBounty will be shared. But as pointed out by Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there is usually not enough time to analyze this data.
In the event that the FDA approves AquAdvantage, consumers may not be able to exercise their right to avoid purchasing the salmon, as chances are, it won’t be labeled as GMO. AquaBounty claims that the salmon has the same taste, color, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, proteins and other nutrients as traditional Atlantic salmon. Though it will be for the FDA to confirm this, if it does, labeling would to be on a voluntary basis since the American government has so far rejected mandatory labeling for GMO crops. Instead, they must be marked only if their nutritional properties or other characteristics differ from non-GMO products.
AquaBounty has said that it expects a final approval in the next few months. Other experiments to genetically engineer fish have been conducted, such as on tilapia and carp in China, but none so far have been approved for human consumption. AquAdvantage would set a precedent and open the way for other genetically engineered animals.