Salmon Stars in New GMO Debate


Activists and scientists are torn on the future of ‘super’ salmon

This fall, the U.S.-based Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stunned critics by declaring  g genetically modified salmon—currently being reared in land-based facilities in Prince Edward Island and Panama — safe for cnsumption.

While the jury is still out on whether the enhanced wildlife will be lining the counters at supermarkets, it’s clear the landscape for genetically modified food has been irrevocably altered with the new species, which carries a combo of genes from salmon and an eel-type fish called Ocean Pout, which speeds up growth.

The journey began when Aquabounty, the company producing the AquAdvantage fish, approached the FDA with blueprints for its salmon 15 years ago. Though the project seems to be lifting off, the potential impact of the super-fish is still being debated among skeptical scientists, who will offer the FDA feedback

on the research before it hits the market. “We should get a ruling by the end of the year,” says John Buchanan, the director of research at Aquabounty Technologies. But despite the review process, critics remain worried.

“We’re concerned the [genetically modified] salmon could escape enclosures and get into the river system, where they could compete with wild salmon for food and habitat or breed with them,” says Sue Scott, vice-president of Communications for the Atlantic Salmon Foundation. In response, Aquabounty

has explained the fish will be almost 99 per cent sterile. Still, the lingering one per cent has some worried — especially if independent suppliers choose to use sea-based facilities where the fish are more likely to escape into the natural ecosystem. “There could be a problem once [people in the] industry start buying

and breeding the salmon,” says Scott. “No one knows what the criteria will be for the industry. There can be escapes, and one per cent of those fish are viable [for breeding].”

Though genetically modified foods aren’t new, genetically modified animals (different than cloned animals, which are not sold for slaughter) have never been available for consumption. For many, it seems like a solution to declining salmon populations. “It’s economically viable to do more salmon farming on

land, and it gives producers better control of the fish,” says Aquabounty’s Buchanan. “This can prevent natural disease, because you can treat the water and medicate the fish.”

For Scott, the possibility of fertile fish breeding with wild salmon creates too many potential complications. “The genetic makeup [of wild salmon] teaches them how to migrate. We worry they could lose their wildness and other abilities. We don’t know what could happen, but it might not be good.”

Other environmental organizations are reluctant to weigh in decisively on the matter, claiming more research into the eco and health implications is needed. “Genetically modified foods are not part of the gamut of sustainable products,” says Jaye Russell, program manager for the Vancouver-based sustainable

seafood program, Ocean Wise. “Right now, there just isn’t enough data about the project. We can’t yet evaluate it,” she adds. “We’ll make decisions based on [forthcoming] scientific data.”

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