FDA: Genetically Modified Salmon Are Safe for Consumption, Environment

Published October 4, 2010

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined salmon genetically modified to grow to maturity faster than either wild or traditional farm-raised salmon are safe for human consumption and pose no threat to the environment.

Aquabounty, the developer of the genetically modified salmon studied by FDA, has been trying to win approval for three years—after seven years of development, testing, and paperwork filings.

Preserves Wild Salmon Stocks
Aquabounty’s salmon can grow to market size in 18 months rather than the 30 months farmed Atlantic salmon currently require.

Aquabounty achieved this result by introducing a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that is kept active all year round by a genetic on-switch from a different fish, the ocean pout. Normally, salmon produce growth hormone only in warm weather. With the hormone produced year-round, the AquAdvantage salmon grow faster.

A successful launch of Aquabounty’s salmon would reduce pressure on wild salmon stocks currently threatened by overconsumption. Similar genetic modifications to other types of fish could alleviate malnutrition among human populations and reduce stress on global fish stocks.

“We as a society are rightly concerned about overfishing of the ocean fisheries. But these farmed fish relieve pressure on natural stocks,” said Gregory Conko, director of Food and Drug Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Less Environmental Impact
Conko pointed out additional environmental benefits of the genetically modified salmon.

“When you improve the efficiency of fish farming, you also reduce the amount of animal waste released into the waters. In short, this provides cheaper, nutritious food for people, with less environmental impact,” Conko explained.

FDA Rejects Activists’ Worries
Despite the promised benefits, 31 interest groups, including environmental and animal rights activist groups, announced their opposition to the genetically modified salmon. They say they fear the modified salmon could escape into the wild and outcompete wild salmon for food or mates.

Such a scenario is highly unlikely, Aquabounty says, because the modified salmon will be grown only in isolated, inland waters and only sterile females will be sold. FDA agrees with Aquabounty that there is little threat of the modified salmon escaping into the wild and reproducing.

Gen Modification’s Nothing New
The salmon will be completely safe for human consumption, Conko notes.

“The Aquabounty salmon has been reviewed by the FDA for over a decade,” Conko said. “Probably no food item that has ever been consumed has received more scrutiny by federal regulators. The change to the salmon just means that there will be more of a particular protein in the fish that people are already exposed to when they eat fish; a protein that is perfectly safe for human consumption. This protein, like other proteins, won’t build up, but rather is destroyed by digestion.”

“The fears raised by opponents of genetically modified salmon, as with other genetically modified foods, show a fundamental lack of understanding of the extent to which humans have manipulated the existing food supply using traditional crossbreeding and selective breeding techniques,” agreed biologist Henry Miller, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“Except for wild game, wild mushrooms, wild berries and fish and shellfish, virtually all the food in European and American diets is already derived from genetically modified organisms,” Miller noted. “Yogurt, beer, tofu, and bread, for example, are made with microorganisms that have been painstakingly modified and optimized over many years or even centuries,” said Miller.

Biotech Increases Precision, Safety
Miller notes animals have also been genetically engineered by laborious and imprecise trial-and-error breeding techniques.

“It is not genetic engineering of food that is new, but rather the techniques for accomplishing it,” Miller explained. “And the newest techniques—recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing—are far more precise and predictable than their predecessors. It is noteworthy that the imprecision of the earlier techniques led to several prominent mishaps, including a disastrous susceptibility of maize to mould, and new varieties of potatoes, squash, and celery with inadvertently elevated levels of endogenous toxins. These kinds of unforeseen problems are vastly less likely with the newest techniques.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.