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Genetically Modified Salmon: Everything You Need to Know

Taking inspiration from the dozens of faux Q&As sent to me throughout the year by the PR departments of the corporate food world, I thought I...

Taking inspiration from the dozens of faux Q&As sent to me throughout the year by the PR departments of the corporate food world, I thought I would produce my own Q&A about corporate food's most recent contribution—the AquaBounty AquAdvantage™ salmon.

Q: AquaBounty calls the AquAdvantage™ an "advanced hybrid" fish and the company's president Ronald Stotish said recently on CNN that there is not "any material difference between the AquaBounty salmon and an Atlantic salmon." Is this fish an Atlantic salmon? And is it a hybrid or a genetically modified animal?

A: The AquAdvantage™ salmon is an Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon growth gene inserted into its DNA. In addition, a regulator protein from a fish called an ocean pout has been added to the Chinook growth gene turning the gene permanently in the "on" position. It is a genetically modified animal.

Q: Does it grow very fast?

A: Yes, very fast. Twice as fast as an unmodified salmon.

Q: Isn't that a little uncomfortable for the fish?

A: Probably. In fact, experiments with artificially accelerating growth in terrestrial animals have been known to cause crippling skeletal deformations. Fish, however, float, and can endure some of the negative effects of precocious growth. But in the end we do not know how much these fish will suffer.

Q: But is the AquAdvantage™ salmon safe to eat?

A: According to the Center for Food Safety, AquaBounty has tested a total of 12 fish for allergens and other potential human health risks. AquaBounty claims they have tested 30 fish. If the number really is 12, most statisticians say this is too small a sample size to be statistically valid. Whatever the number of fish, the individuals tested were not grown in Panama, the location where AquaBounty plans to produce their fish. This, the Center for Food Safety asserts, is a violation of testing standards set forth by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Q: Wait, the AquAdvantage™ salmon is being grown in Panama?

A: Sort of. Actually the eggs will be created in Canada and then shipped to Panama where they will be grown out to mature size in a facility in the Panamanian mountains. After they are full size they will be slaughtered and the meat will be sent to U.S. supermarkets, where they will be packaged under many familiar brand names and sold as "Atlantic salmon."

Q: But they'll be labeled as genetically modified salmon so I know what I'm eating, right?

A: No. They will be labeled as "Atlantic salmon."

Q: But why are they being grown in Panama?

A: Two reasons. First, the warm waters of Panama might ensure that if these fish escape they won't survive to maturity. The other reason seems to be that if they are grown outside of the United States, AquaBounty will not have to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement as required by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Q: What about the food miles required to ship those eggs and salmon all over the place?

A: AquaBounty may offset some of those costs because the AquAdvantage™ salmon requires 10 percent less feed than an unmodified salmon.

Q: Only 10 percent less? I thought that the whole point of the AquAdvantage™ salmon was that it was twice as efficient as an unmodified salmon, and would require half as much wild fish used as feed to bring to market.

A: No. The AquAdvantage™ salmon grows twice as fast. But according to AquaBounty's own optimistic predictions, it is not much more feed-efficient than an unmodified salmon. Greenpeace asserts that the AquAdvantage™ salmon may actually require more feed than an unmodified salmon. Greenpeace also asserts that the AquAdvantage™ salmon may necessitate the use of more antibiotics than an unmodified salmon since the fish may suffer compromised health as a result of artificially accelerated growth.

Q: But then who benefits from this faster growth rate?

A: AquaBounty. Twice as much salmon every year means twice as much money per dollar spent.

Q: But won't having more salmon on the market take pressure off endangered stocks of wild salmon?

A: There are still many wild salmon left in the world. The state of Alaska produces hundreds of millions of pounds of salmon every year in closely regulated fisheries. The biggest threat to salmon right now is not overfishing but rather habitat destruction. The "Pebble" copper and gold mine project being proposed for Bristol Bay, Alaska, for example, could wipe out the most productive sockeye salmon grounds in the world—an annual run of 40 million fish. More information on the Pebble Mine project can be found here.

Q: Still, AquaBounty says that it will grow its fish in closed containment facilities and that this will be better for the environment: no escapes, no disease transfer, right?

A: Closed containment facilities are indeed a good thing. Keeping salmon farms out of wild salmon migration routes is a positive step. But the Arctic char, a close relative of the Atlantic salmon, is already being grown nearly exclusively in closed containment facilities and requires no genetic modification. It's good-tasting and performs all the culinary roles that farmed salmon perform. Furthermore a closed-containment-grown coho salmon that is not genetically modified is now in production and has been given a "best choice" rating by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

Q: All the media I've seen gives the impression that it is inevitable that the AquAdvantage™ salmon will be approved by the FDA and that we will see modified salmon on the market very soon. Is the AquAdvantage™ salmon "inevitable"?

A: No. The AquAdvantage™ salmon is far from approved. In September, the FDA's panel asked for further research and gave no final approval date for the fish. Thirty-eight representatives and senators requested that FDA halt the approval process. In addition, lawsuits could follow should the FDA approve the fish for human consumption. The soonest we could see the AquAdvantage™ salmon on the market would be 2012, but given the company's volatile stock price, which fell by nearly 30 percent off its high following the FDA hearings, it is difficult to predict whether the company will have sufficient resources to survive the waiting period.

Q: Which organizations are opposing the FDA approval of the AquAdvantage™ salmon?

A: Food and Water Watch and The Center for Food Safety are particularly active.

Q: Would you eat the AquAdvantage™ salmon?

A: I would not. In fact, more than 60 percent of readers of the conservative Wall Street Journal would not either, according to a recent online poll. A survey I conducted for the public radio station WHYY during an online webchat indicated that 0 percent would eat the AquAdvantage™ salmon. But why not tell GOOD what you think?

Do you eat farmed salmon?

Would you eat the AquAdvantage™ salmon?

Should the AquAdvantage™ be labeled "genetically modified"?

Would you continue to eat farmed salmon if you knew that some farmed salmon might be genetically modified but was not labeled as such?

Paul Greenberg is the author of book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

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