Genetically modified crops have been on the market for decades in the United States, and other parts of the world. However, this fall the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has approved the first-ever genetically modified animal for human consumption, and there is much public push-back and concern. AquAdvantage fish are Atlantic Salmon produced by the AquaBounty Technologies Corporation (formerly AquaBounty Farms). So, what’s all the concern really about? Read on to find out what you need to know
What are they and how are they made?
The transgenic fish are engineered by inserting genetic material from the Chinook Salmon (growth hormone gene) and the Ocean Pout (“anti-freeze” gene) into Atlantic salmon eggs. The resulting Atlantic Salmon grow faster than their wild counterparts, taking 16-18 months to mature versus the typical 3 years. These fish grow faster because, unlike wild-type Atlantic Salmon in which the hormone responsible for growth is only secreted for 4-5 months at a time, the modification allows them to secrete growth hormone year-round. This leads to quicker maturation. The fish however, do not grow any larger than wild Atlantic Salmon can.
AquAdvantage Salmon are also all female and are sterile. They cannot reproduce. This characteristic is not a result of their genetic engineering, but a result of a common technology used in other farm raised-fish such as trout and tilapia, to make the fish sterile.
History of AquAdvantage Salmon
Research and development of the first engineered salmon began in 1989 at Memorial University of Newfounland, in Canada. From generations of breeding the “founder fish” came AquAdvatage Salmon, so named by the company who liscenced them from the university. That company later became Massacusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies.
In the United States genetically engineered animals are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act know as NADA (New Animal Drug Application ). In 2010, it was concluded that the modified fish was safe to eat and was not a threat to the environment. A risk-assessment was conducted, and in 2012 the FDA determined a “finding of no significant impact”, in regards to the safety of AquAdvantage salmon. The public was allowed 120 days to comment on the assessment, before approval.
Why are they making Genetically Modified Salmon?
Fish were initially caught by fishermen on boats and consumed by local populations. Improvements in fishing technology allowed much more fish to be caught, and the development of canneries allowed fish to be stored and shipped overseas. Eventually exploitations lead to the over fishing of the seas. Overfishing has resulted in a decline in fish populations and a loss of diversity. For instance, the decline of Pacific Salmon that began in the 1800’s resulted in them being listed as endangered at the end of the 20th century. To compensate for the loss of diversity and maintain production of fish for sale, hatcheries and aquaculture (fish farms) were developed. By 2012, about 50% of fish consumed was raised on farms, compared to only 5 % just 50 years before. Farmed Salmon are raised in pens, fed feed pellets of fishmeal, fish oil, wheat by-products, soybean, and other additives. These fish can be harvested year-round, while Wild Salmon can only be harvested during their annual migration.
While this protected wild populations from being decimated, fish farms require a lot of energy to run, release waste that pollute the surrounding ecosystem, and use antibiotics to reduce the spread of disease amongst penned fish. There is also the problem of farmed fish escaping.
AquAdvantage fish are sterile, making them unable to reproduce even if they escaped into the wild. This would also prevent their genetic material from altering the genetics of wild-type fish populations. Faster growth of AquAdvantage salmon coupled with the year-round harvesting conferred by farming, would increase the rate of availability of Salmon for food.
The concern over these fish surrounds their environmental impact more-so than their safety as a food source. As the genes that have been used to create AquAdvantage Salmon are naturally occurring in other types of fish (the Chinook Salmon growth hormone gene is 98% identical to that of the Atlantic Salmon). Also, the company plans to avoid contaminating the marine ecosystem by raising these Salmon on land in enclosed aquariums instead of in netted pens in the sea; as is currently done with farm-raised non genetically-modified fish. However, other environmental impacts remain, such as the high “cost” of feeding these carnivorous fish other fish and crustaceans, and the fuel and energy needed to transport and support their growth in an artificial environment.