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Fear the Frankenfish: Beneath the Gills of the Genetically Engineered Salmon

A quick-developing, nutritious, cheap fish with no negative health or environmental impacts? Many scientists say it sounds good—almost too good.

Government documents uncovered this December revealed a fishy situation: In 2009, Canadian authorities discovered a new strain of a deadly fish flu, Infectious Salmon Anaemia, at a Prince Edward Island aquaculture research facility. ISA outbreaks always mean trouble—the disease decimates fish populations across the globe—but this case is leaving an especially sour taste in foodies’ mouths.

That’s because the research facility was owned by AquaBounty Technologies, a biotech company that creates salmon eggs to hatch genetically engineered fish. AquaBounty never released information about the outbreak to the public, despite the fact that its GE salmon is poised to become the first transgenic animal to be approved for human consumption.

This fish flu flub is just the latest bullet point on a laundry list of concerns surrounding the genetically modified fish. Environmentalists have even coined a scary new name for the offending dish: Frankenfish. I wanted to take a peek under the fish’s genetically altered gills and examine some of the controversy surrounding this infamous swimmer.

But AquaBounty Technologies isn’t eager for reporters to dive too deep. When I contacted the company, a spokesperson (who would not be named) informed me that AquaBounty wasn’t granting interviews on the matter. The representative would provide me with some background information—and inform me that criticisms of GE salmon are “unwarranted and not based on fact.”

The company's GE salmon is the result of 20 years of tinkering. The AquAdvantage reaches maturity twice as fast as wild North Atlantic salmon; scientists achieved the feat by inserting a gene from a Chinook salmon into an Atlantic one. AquaBounty claims its genetically modified salmon is a fast-growing, safe-to-consume fish that requires 10 percent less feed than traditional farmed salmon. A quick-developing, nutritious, cheap fish with no negative health or environmental impacts? Many scientists say it sounds good—almost too good.

Americans have never eaten transgenic animals before, so policies on how to safely approve them as dinners just don’t exist. Rather than actually create said policies, the Food and Drug Administration—the agency with the power to send the fish to supermarket coolers—found a loophole: Treat a GE animal like a new animal drug. The FDA plans to deploy the same regulatory process on GE salmon as it would on a new sheep medication.

Obviously, GE salmon is not an animal drug. It is an animal—a genetically altered one at that. Conscious consumers have reason to be wary: According to the Center for Food Safety, some studies have linked genetically modified foods to allergic reactions, while other research suggests that transgenic fish may be more susceptible to disease. To treat those maladies, GE salmon producers would likely rely on antibiotics and other chemicals, drugs that would then be passed on to consumers. George Leonard, a marine scientist and director of aquaculture at the Ocean Conservancy, put it this way: “Like any system, when you put it together with duct tape and cable ties, it doesn’t function well.”

And the GE salmon’s problems could stretch far beyond the dinner table: Scientists fear the modified fish may wreak havoc on the environment. According to Food & Water Watch, about 2 million farmed salmon escape into the North Atlantic every year. Millions more swim to the Pacific. Those farmed salmon not only breed with wild salmon, they compete with them for food, mates, habitat, and other resources. If you introduce a genetically altered salmon that grows twice as fast as a wild fish, that makes for some hefty competition. “If fish get out, because it’s a GE animal, those new combinations of genes will persist in the wild in a way that is not analogous to the farmed Atlantic salmon that are currently getting out and breeding with wild Atlantic salmon,” Leonard says. “That escape and interbreeding issue is a bigger concern than it is for traditional farmed salmon.”

AquaBounty counters these criticisms by arguing that its salmon eggs are bred to be sterile females, and that GE salmon will only be raised in FDA-approved land-based containment centers rather than open-ocean pens. Anyone else getting Jurassic Park vibes? AquaBounty’s own research shows that about 5 percent of all GE salmon hatched won’t actually be sterile. And land-based containment centers aren’t escape-proof. Fish could still fly—er, swim—the coop during times like natural disasters or floods. A Food and Water Watch report cites one study that claims a small number of GE escapees could cause wild salmon populations to go extinct in as few as 40 generations.

The reality is that long-term studies on the safety of eating transgenic fish have never been performed, and the studies that have been conducted are unimpressive. “The science that’s been done to date is pretty weak,” Leonard says. “Sample sizes are small and there’s been selective use of the data. That puts you in a bit of a never-never land on the food safety side—there isn’t science to say it’s not healthy, but none to say they are safe to consume.”

Who really benefits from a better, faster fish? Because of rebounding wild salmon populations and advances in aquaculture, some critics argue that there just isn’t a need to genetically engineer salmon. “We have many more avenues to explore before we have to even contemplate GE fish,” says Paul Greenberg, author of the book Four Fish. “In my opinion, GE fish technology is just like patented seeds of Roundup Ready grains and other such things—it’s just a way of privatizing the genome of a living organism. It’s much more about personal or corporate profit than it is about feeding the world.”

Even after 20 years of research, the science and potential implications of GE fish are still murky. If the FDA approves the AquAdvantage salmon without spending the time to take a thorough, objective look at the environmental, health, and economic consequences of GE fish, it would set a dangerous precedent. Consumers could see a flood of transgenic animals in the food supply, making humans and the environment complicit in this corporate experiment. If there’s one thing we do know about genetically engineered fish—and transgenic foods in general—it’s this: We don’t know enough.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Andrea Pokrzywinski

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