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Can Engineered Salmon Save Seafood?

The Food and Drug Administration has begun approving genetically modified animals. But will creations like AquAdvantage Salmon live up to their promise?

Somewhere in central Massachusetts, a herd of 200 genetically modified goats is being raised to produce ATryn, an intravenous anti-clotting drug extracted from their milk. The goat farm doubling as a pharmaceutical laboratory may seem a long way away from the typical sushi bar, but the two may actually not be that far off.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration ruled the herd “safe”—the first such genetically modified animals to be cleared in America—in what some said was a watershed event for the industry. The ruling followed a set of draft guidelines on food and drugs produced by what the FDA calls "transgenic animals" (animals modified with recombinant DNA techniques, a process where short gene sequences are inserted randomly into another species’ DNA to add new traits).

The approval of the “pharmed” goats could open the door to the AquAdvantage Salmon, a fish engineered to grow at a rate about double its wild counterpart. “Meet—and eat—the modified Atlantic salmon,” said a headline in Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail last week (via Eat Me Daily). “FDA to approve Aqua Bounty's new fish tweaked with genetic material from Chinook salmon and eel-like species called ocean pout.”

When I called the company’s CEO to ask about the expected date of the FDA’s approval, Ron Stotish laughed, as if predicting when the fish might reach the market were a long-running joke. After all, it has been nearly a decade since the transgenic salmon’s arrival has been anticipated and feared as the first genetically modified animal for human consumption. But because the FDA has not released the safety documentation Aqua Bounty has submitted, there’s no way of knowing exactly when, or if, we will be eating the AquAdvantage Salmon.

Farming fish (and genetically modifying them for aquaculture) developed as a response to the depletion of the world’s fisheries and the dramatic rise in seafood consumption. In a 2006 report, “State of World Aquaculture,” the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that close to half of the fish consumed worldwide were farmed (compared to 9 percent in 1980). While fish farming dates back thousands of years, it’s currently being tried on a far greater scale—and may even be depleting the very resource it’s trying to supplement.

Aquaculture critics say salmon net pens are like waterborne feedlots filled with weak and diseased fish polluting the ocean and feeding off smaller, forage fish. (It takes an estimated three pounds of wild fish to make an average pound of farmed salmon). New fish species, developed through traditional breeding or transgenic methods, may also be prone to escape, breed with, or overtake natural populations. Moreover, under the FDA’s draft approval process for genetically engineered animals, consumers would have no way of knowing what fish are genetically modified because they wouldn't have to carry any special labeling.

Biotechnology advocates say faster-growing species, like AquAdvantage, might reduce environmental impact and even suggest that lowered farming costs could correspond with an increase in omega-3 fatty acid consumption, implying that cheaper, farm-raised salmon might make healthier consumers.

On a more ideological level, a “blue revolution” could do for the sea what the “green revolution” did for agriculture, according to Paul Greenberg, the author of a forthcoming book on the future of fish. The FDA supports the idea that transgenic animals have the potential to reduce environmental impacts and to make healthier food. But though the agricultural green revolution pledged to deliver an increased capacity to feed the planet and the introduction of genetic engineering pledged more, better, and healthier food, the problem of hunger remains despite increases in production. The blue revolution’s attempt to market a transgenic salmon might well fail to live up to the philanthropic potential of genetic engineering. Salmon hardly seems like a fish intended to be cheap protein for the masses.

At the same time that engineered fish move forward, innovative sushi chefs in the United States are passing up fatty, industrial salmon and tuna species in favor of more traditional Japanese-style fare: full-flavored seafood found lower on the food chain. We might consider following their lead. Fresh saba (Atlantic mackerel) or hokkigai (Atlantic surf clam) have more distinct flavors—and possibly even the promise for sustainable seafood. Smaller, wild seafood tend to be more abundant and reproduce faster, making it not only less likely to contain mercury and toxins, but generally more sustainable (depending, of course, on the fishing gear and methods used, too).

If all goes as planned, few flavors will distinguish a transgenic salmon farmed in 18 months or salmon farmed in three years and no labeling will distinguish them in the fish case. Salmon is a predator fish, and farmed salmon–genetically modified or not—may ultimately resemble something akin to a floating feedlot full of underwater wolves. Until oversight for companies developing aquaculture and transgenic fish calls for complete transparency on any potential environmental and humanitarian benefits, at the sushi bar, hold off on the farmed sake.

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