Thursday, April 21, 2011

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish...

The AquAdvantage Salmon with a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon
The AquAdvantage Salmon in the background with regular Atlantic salmon of the same age.
Image: AquaBounty Technologies
Many of us probably can continue that children's story in our heads...Black fish, blue fish, old fish, new fish.

Until recently, new fish occurred only in such children's ditties, as imagined by the wonderful Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). But now, thanks to a private company and genetic engineering, there may soon be a new fish - a new species of fish, to be exact - on the block, one that will be swimming straight for your dinner plate.

The  AquAdvantage salmon, the first genetically modified (GM) animal to be considered for human consumption, is an Atlantic salmon enhanced with genes from other related fish. A gene from a Chinook salmon allows for rapid growth, and genes from an ocean pout (which, according to Timothy Egan, writing for the New York Times, in a lovely turn of phrase, "looks like an eel on a bad fin day.") provide growth hormones. This GM salmon grows quickly, reaching market size in half the time of conventional salmon. Fully intended as a commodity, the AquAdvantage salmon provides a "compelling" economic benefit to fish farmers by way of a reduced growing cycle.

The FDA is nearing approval of the salmon after years of review. Are these fish the answer to feeding an ever-growing world? Or are they Frankenfood?

Regardless of the answer, these fish are here. And even though I personally have mixed feelings about GMOs overall, there is one thing I am clear about: I definitely want to know what I'm eating.

Unfortunately, under current labeling laws, once these transgenic fish are approved by the FDA, consumers may not know if the fillets they are grilling for dinner or ordering at a restaurant are GM salmon or merely farm-raised salmon. It seems as if the parent company fought hard not to have these fish labeled as genetically modified because it was concerned that people would confuse the information label with a warning label.

Isn't that sweet? That big ol' corporation is worried that I might be confused.


To back up a bit, the FDA concluded last fall that the GM salmon had similar vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and protein as conventional salmon. The FDA has also ruled that labels are only required if the GM salmon was significantly different than regular salmon. So as long as the two types of fish are considered similar, no special labeling is required.

Not surprisingly, some people think that the presence of foreign genes in a fish IS difference enough to require a label. The folks over at have started a petition to Congress to insist these fish are labeled as being genetically modified. Here's where you can participate in the petition.

It's fairly clear that the producers of the AquaAdvantage salmon know they are facing an uphill battle to sell this fish if it is labeled as genetically modified. The Washington Post conducted a poll on consumers' willingness to purchase the GM salmon; here are part of the results from September 2010. 

If genetically engineered salmon wins FDA approval, will you buy it?
Source: Washington Post

Only 37% of individuals answering the poll said they would buy genetically engineered salmon. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) conducted a similar reader response poll and found that only 33% of respondents would eat genetically altered fish. Want to boost that percentage? Don't let the consumer know what kind of fish he or she is purchasing.

Because this is such an important issue, I've compiled a short reading list below on this topic. Let's face it, the world's population is increasing in leaps and bounds. Salmon is a healthy source of protein. We've overfished and polluted the world's water supplies so that native salmon are declining. Tough decisions face us as we figure out how to feed everyone, keep the earth reasonably clean, and respect nature. But it seems to me that labeling GM products - this salmon included - is respectful of the consumers' abilities to make up their own minds rather than just caving into capitalism.

Here's the pro biotech story.

Wired brings up some good points. 

This page lists a lot of scientific articles that provide a historical perspective on GM fish. 

Here's the Duke press release on the Science article that is considered the seminal piece on GM salmon. Here is the Duke article, but you have to have a subscription to Science to view it.

Here's one of the stories on this topic from the CBC, which is of interest because one of the factories to create the GM salmon eggs will be located on Prince Edward Island.

We'd better get this issue straightened out because already, hybrid trout and tilapia are moving through the FDA's regulatory chutes. Stay tuned.


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