Salmon is not what it used to be. You could easily say that about all or any wild fish (especially after reading Paul Greenberg’s excellent Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food) but wild salmon, which used to be a highly plentiful wild fish, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, is now largely a farmed fish. From a conservationist perspective this is exceedingly bad, and from a consumer perspective this is unfavorable. Well things are about to get weird with our current farmed salmon stocks as the Food and Drug Administration just announced a 60-day period of consultation and public meetings over whether to permit a genetically modified (GM) strain of salmon to be sold for human consumption, even though it has been called a “frankenfish” by critics. The odds are (taking a good look at the power of the GM lobby) that this GM salmon will make it past critics and those skeptical at the FDA in less than a year, to find a home on American dinner tables nationwide.
Farmed salmon is a widely consumed and hugely popular form of seafood nationwide, and worldwide. Some estimates gauge that more than 30% of all seafood purchases in the United States are in the form of farmed salmon, and with this development, farmed salmon would have a new, somewhat tarnished, designate; as the first genetically modified animal bred for human consumption. According to an article in the New York Times from June, ” The salmon’s approval would help open a path for companies and academic scientists developing other genetically engineered animals, like cattle resistant to mad cow disease or pigs that could supply healthier bacon.”
The AquAdvantage salmon – a modified North Atlantic salmon (which ironically is almost entirely fished out of existence) – has been created by AquaBounty Technologies in Boston, Massachusetts, and has been created/modified, not to develop a greater flavor or nutritional profile, but simply because this salmon grows at twice the speed of similar fish, cutting costs for farmers and greatly increasing production. According to information released by the company (and gleaned from the Guardian UK) the genetic modification involves taking a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and joining it with a control DNA sequence (called a promoter) from an ocean pout – an eel-like creature from a different family of marine organisms. The salmon, which normally feed only during the spring and summer months, would (thanks to this genetic upgrade) be literally switched “on” by the added pout gene, which will trigger them to feed year round. The result is, not necessarily a fatter fish, but one that grows larger and faster – considerably shortening the time to market. Translation: this development is only to benefit producers, not consumers.
Surprisingly, one of the opponents to this GM product is the International Salmon Farmers Association, which is concerned about the reaction of consumers and that it will undermine the popularity of salmon, which commands high prices in the US. Considering that the FDA still remains on the fence, as whether or not they will require the fish to be labeled “Genetically Modified,” it is fair to say that some cautious consumers may be ultimately turned off by the idea of consuming this dubbed “frankenfish.”
While the FDA has established an advisory committee of veterinarians to consider the evidence and public views on the subject of this GM seafood, and consumers have a year or so to make a stink, this will likely be a messy fight over dinner. No doubt, if this fish gets ultimately rejected this time around (this particular crossbred salmon has been 15 years in the making) it will be tinkered and tooled with and again offered up to the FDA (and the American public) for their approval a few years down the line.
This is indisputably a difficult issue, and one that has a high emotional range. Consumers, ecologists, and health professionals remain highly skeptical when it comes to genetically modified anything, and for good reason – we simply don’t know how this particular trifling with nature will impact us, as consumers, as well as the surrounding natural world. Will GM fish make consumers sick down the line? Will the GM fish infect or impact other wild fish stocks? Will this open a Pandora’s box of biological exploitation and a general sullying of our natural food systems?