Salmon Fishing in Test Tubes

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SalmonThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released an environmental assessment of the first-ever Genetically Engineered (GE) animal intended for human consumption.

The company AquaBounty Technologies has created AquAdvantage Salmon: a salmon that is genetically engineered to grow larger and faster than conventional wild Atlantic salmon.

The GE salmon includes a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon as well as DNA from a bottom-feeding marine species called an eelpout. These genetic modifications cause the salmon to grow to 24 inches and reach a weight of 6.6 lb., as opposed to average, natural salmon that regularly measure at 13 inches and 2.8 lb.

After reading through the FDA’s environmental assessment and having considered the potential benefits and repercussions of the proposal, it becomes clear that this is a dangerous undertaking that should not be approved by the FDA.

 Environmental Issues with Genetically Engineered Salmon

The proposed plan for the GE salmon is to grow their eggs in a Prince Edward Island facility, and to then transfer growing, harvesting and processing to a laboratory in Panama. Only the final stage of preparation – filleting and packaging for commercial sale – will actually take place in the U.S.

The FDA states that “the specific proposed limitations on the production and use [of the salmon]… are designed to mitigate potential adverse environmental impacts [emphasis added].” The fact that the FDA will not allow any of the growth or production of the GE fish to take place in the U.S. is reason alone to question whether this is a safe, environmentally-sound process.

Furthermore, the potentially devastating effects that genetically engineered salmon can have on other salmon species is of particular concern. Suppose that a GE salmon escapes into another stream and breeds with a different salmon species. Given that wild Atlantic salmon is already endangered, the likely chance of cross-contamination can further endanger—or even extinct—the wild Atlantic salmon species.

In the event that a genetically engineered salmon breeds with a natural species, the genetic changes to the natural salmon will be unknown and difficult to track. Although AquaBounty has stated that their salmon are engineered to be female only, sources show that salmon species can change gender, and there is no guarantee that the GE salmon will not escape and breed with other species.

Moreover, AquAdvantage owns the rights to the man-made genes in the GE salmon. This is to say that should the GE salmon escape and breed with different natural species, the company could pursue legal action against salmon farmers or fishermen.

While this may seem somewhat outrageous, consider the agricultural corporation Monsanto and its highly publicized legal action over patented technologies on genetically engineered seeds. There have been several cases in which Monsanto-patented seeds were windblown from one farm to another. Although the farmer may have never purchased or knowingly planted Monsanto seeds, he was still in violation of their patent. It’s not so inconceivable to anticipate similar cases of patent-infringement arising between AquaBounty Technologies and local fishermen.

Danger of GE Salmon to Humans

There are many concerns associated with the human consumption of GE salmon. The potential health risks associated with ingesting such a substance have not yet been adequately researched. Two-week testing conducted by AquaBounty Technologies can hardly be considered comprehensive research or conclusive evidence that the GE salmon is safe to eat. Potential toxicity and long-term side effects have yet to be explored or established.

Also, in the absence of required labeling, the question of potential food allergies to these genetically engineered salmon must also be addressed. Already, there are issues with fish being mislabeled or being injected with antibiotics that have adverse effects on consumers. Eelpout is a common fish allergy – what effects might a salmon cross-bred with eelpout have on an allergic person? These issues have been left unexplored, leaving a substantial group of people vulnerable to serious health dangers and unable to distinguish eelpout-containing salmon with the natural kind.

Antibiotic use in farmed salmon is the highest of all fish, and is higher than antibiotic use in livestock animals for consumption. Furthermore, the additives and dyes used to make the grey flesh of a farmed salmon pink (so that the fish is more visually appealing to consumers) add further toxins to the body when consumed. There are too many uncertain variables related to the health impacts of GE salmon that have yet to be analyzed.

Why You Should Care

One may ask why genetically engineered salmon is a cause for concern. Many argue that we’ve become overly consumed and paranoid with everything we eat, demanding more regulations and more labeling to the point of excess.

While it’s certainly true that there’s a balance to be struck between worrying about health and not becoming obsessive, we should be aware of what we’re ingesting and its impact on our health.

While the FDA’s approval of GE salmon may seem inconsequential now, it would be setting a precedent for the future in which genetically engineered animals could become the norm. If a case can be made for why we need to eat engineered salmon, it will inevitably be made for other foods as well.

Already, so many of the foods we eat are genetically modified or contain chemicals that were not initially intended for human consumption. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to eat foods in their natural state that have not been chemically or artificially altered.

The potential effects of approving genetically engineered salmon are far-reaching, with biological, environmental and physical implications. Without even raising the ethical questions of whether or not it is acceptable to genetically create animals to be eaten, there are enough reasons to be skeptical of this venture.

The potential negative implications associated with the GE salmon are numerous, while the benefits—aside from commercial gains—are few. Certainly, there is currently a shortage of wild Atlantic salmon; however, turning to engineered test-tube salmon is a far leap from strengthening preservation and protective measures of natural salmon, which must be responsibly explored and exhausted first.

The FDA should not approve this docket. At the very least, a law should be passed requiring mandatory labeling for all GE salmon. Currently, if the manufacturing of the salmon were to be approved, it would only be labeled as “farmed” salmon. People have a right to know what they are putting into their bodies. To not clearly label such a product would be unjust, deceiving, and negligent. Given that the genetic makeup of this salmon would be considerably different from the wild (or even farmed) natural kind, the labeling should be absolutely explicit and clear.

At the very least, consumers ought to know what is in their food, and the process it went through to arrive in grocery stores. To create and modify animals at a company’s whim and sell it as food is chilling at best. To not label such products is simply deceitful.

If you have an opinion and would like the FDA to hear about it before making their decision, have your say here.

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