One look at a wild salmon against the background of a same-aged AquAdvantage® Salmon explains why AquaBounty is at the front of the pack in the race to put genetically modified salmon on our plates. The transgenic fish is ready to harvest in 16 to 18 months, while the wild species requires twice that time. With human population on a steady increase and fish stocks on a decline, that’s a promise raising a lot of interest.
Insert a Chinook salmon gene into Atlantic salmon, and the result is this fast-growing fish. It is easy to make a business case for fish that require a lot less feed and all the other inputs that go into aquaculture. As to its safety, AquaBounty advises, “Fish grown from AquAdvantage® eggs are all female and sterile, making it impossible for them to breed amongst themselves. In addition, FDA approval requires them to be grown in physically contained systems, further reducing any potential impact on wild populations.”
In August 2010 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its Environmental Assessment for AquAdvantage® Salmon. They declared “the likelihood of escape is extremely small” and that “the GE salmon are all-female, triploid fish that cannot reproduce among themselves or with wild or escaped domesticated, non-GE salmon.”
New research raises red flags
Canadian researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland inserted the same salmon gene into farmed Atlantic salmon to provide an independent assessment of the potential impact on wild stocks. They have just released results that raise a red flag. They warn that although wild males outperformed their more aggressive transgenic cousins under naturalized laboratory conditions, the transgenic males were able to fertilize eggs. The study’s lead author, Derek Moreau, said that showed the genetically engineered fish “have the potential to contribute modified genes to wild populations.”
Moreau cautions, “these data highlight the importance of preventing reproductively-viable GM salmon from entering natural systems.”
AquaBounty insists its fish will only be farmed in carefully contained settings and will be unable to reproduce anyway. Writing for Fast Company, Ariel Schwartz points out, “AquaBounty will most likely not be the only company invested in the GM fish market. And even if the GM salmon don’t reproduce faster than other salmon species, they can still harm the gene pool and degrade salmon survival traits.”
In the Montreal Gazette Beatrice Fantoni reports, “Matthew Abbott, the co-ordinator of Fundy Baykeeper conservation group in Saint Andrews, N.B., said it is common for farmed Atlantic salmon to escape ocean-based farming pens. It is not likely a fish can escape an inland farm, he said, but if transgenic Atlantic salmon were approved for production in Canada, he would not be surprised if producers would eventually begin farming it in open nets in the ocean where escapes are almost inevitable.”
The GM genie is out of the bottle
Companies forging ahead with genetic engineering have far more resources than the scientists trying to track the long-term safety of their products. We are already seeing some of the unintended consequences. (See Scientists Reveal Glyphosate Poisons Crops and Soil and Roundup and Birth Defects.)
The GM genie is out of the bottle. In spite of red flags, there is little political or corporate will to lure it back in long enough to determine whether benefits will ultimately outweigh risks.
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[The study appeared in the July online edition of Evolutionary Applications. Moreau. D, Conway. C, Fleming. I, “Reproductive performance of alternative male phenotypes of growth hormone transgenic Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)”, Evolutionary Applications, Wiley-Blackwell, July 2011: DOI:10.1111/j.1752-4571.2011.00196.x]
Photo from Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via flickr