Progress Illinois looks at the debate surrounding genetically engineered salmon now that it has been approved for human consumption in the United States.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a controversial decision about GMO foods last month by approving the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption.
AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts-based company, secured FDA approval on November 19 to produce genetically modified Atlantic salmon intended for the human food supply. AquaBounty had been petitioning the FDA for product approval since 1996.
The company's "AquAdvantage salmon," which has been genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as conventional farm-raised Atlantic salmon, is not expected to hit the market for another two years. AquaBounty's Atlantic salmon grows faster than normal because it contains a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and a promoter gene from ocean pout fish.
Proponents say genetically modified salmon is safe to eat and environmentally sustainable.
"AquAdvantage salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats," said Ronald Stotish, CEO of AquaBounty, a majority-owned subsidiary of the Maryland-based synthetic biology company Intrexon Corporation.
But opponents say genetically modified salmon could pose risks to human health, wild fish populations and ecosystems. They also question AquaBounty's environmental record, pointing to past regulatory violations and other problems at its salmon production facility in Panama.
Environmental and public interest groups have criticized the FDA's approval process as well. The agency received 1.8 million comments opposing AquaBounty's salmon application.
"The review process by FDA was inadequate, failed to fully examine the likely impacts of the salmon's introduction and lacked a comprehensive analysis," said Andrew Kimbrell with the Center for Food Safety (CFS), based in Washington, D.C. "This decision sets a dangerous precedent, lowering the standards of safety in this country. CFS will hold FDA to their obligations to the American people."
The Center for Food and Safety plans to sue the FDA in an effort to block the agency's approval of AquAdvantage salmon.
"The fallout from this decision will have enormous impact on the environment. Center for Food Safety has no choice but to file suit to stop the introduction of this dangerous contaminant," Kimbrell stressed. "FDA has neglected its responsibility to protect the public."
AquAdvantage's approval is also being met with pushback from some major retailers. Costco, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are among those that have thus far announced they will not sell genetically engineered salmon.
The FDA says the product is as safe and healthful as conventional Atlantic salmon. AquAdvantage's salmon, all of which will be female and reproductively sterile, will "not have a significant impact on the environment of the United States," according to the FDA. AquaBounty will grow its genetically engineered salmon in land-based facilities in Panama and Canada, making it "extremely unlikely that the fish could escape and establish themselves in the wild," the FDA said.
FDA's approval does not allow the genetically modified salmon to be bred or raised in the United States.
"Looking into the technology and all of the safeguards that are being put into place, I can understand why this [AquAdvantage salmon] is seen as largely a safe product and at least a good thing to test," said David Lightfoot, a biotechnology and genomics professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Patty Lovera with Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights group, expressed worry over the possibility of genetically modified salmon being unleashed into nature.
"If there's containment problems at those facilities [in Panama and Canada], or a different production system gets approved by another country that doesn't have good controls, we're really worried that these fish will get out, and they could cause a lot of ecological problems in whatever system they're in," she said.
Lightfoot said he believes there would be minimal negative impacts if the genetically engineered fish escaped into the wild.
"The consequences of what might be an inevitable escape one day down the road when we're producing millions of these fish in thousands of fish farms all over the world doesn't appear to be very high, on the basis of everything we've done so far in actually deliberately trying to release [different types of] salmon" into nature, he said.
"Then you're left with the benefits," he said, "and the benefits are the salmon is growing basically twice as fast. So, from farm to table in half the time ... I think this is a pretty green technology, really. It reduces the carbon footprint of fish farms."
There is debate whether genetically modified salmon is a sustainable seafood product.
"Farmed salmon is tough on the environment when it's done conventionally. They're still figuring out how do you get a pound of salmon out of that system without using more than a pound of ... wild fish that you've caught to feed them," Lovera said. "Salmon is not a model for sustainable fish farming, and so adding yet another wrinkle -- (a) genetically engineered version of that -- to that potential system doesn't seem sustainable to us."
Also at issue is GMO (genetically modified organism) product labeling. Such labeling is not required for AquaBounty's salmon, because the FDA has deemed it "as safe and nutritious" as conventional Atlantic salmon.
"Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA can only require additional labeling of foods derived from GE [genetically engineered] sources if there is a material difference - such as a different nutritional profile - between the GE product and its non-GE counterpart," the FDA said in a press release. "In the case of the AquAdvantage salmon, the FDA did not find any such differences."
The same day it approved AquaBounty's application, the FDA released draft guidance for the voluntary labeling of food products containing genetically modified Atlantic salmon. The guidelines will now go through a 60-day public comment period. The agency has already issued guidance for the voluntary labeling of foods derived from genetically engineered plants.
Food & Water Watch disagrees with the FDA's decision against mandatory product labeling for genetically modified salmon.
"We think they made the wrong decision [by approving AquAdvantage salmon], but then they made it worse by not requiring labeling," Lovera said. "That is going to be a practical day-to-day problem for consumers who are concerned about this. That it's not required to be labeled is going to cause a lot of confusion in the marketplace."
On the larger GMO labeling issue, Lightfoot said he sympathizes with consumer concerns surrounding genetically engineered foods.
"There's so much GMO material out now that it's very, very difficult to have a diet that's GMO-free," he said. "But buying organic and things that have been labeled non-GMO by a supplier who's made their best efforts to keep GMOs out of the product is as good as it's gonna get" for now.