It’s a good question. Who benefits from genetically modified salmon? Well for one, the company producing it does.
Financially, this would reduce the cost of farmed salmon. And two, I suppose it would reduce the cost of farmed salmon in the supermarket. That, however, is not a viable reason to genetically modify salmon because I never recommend people buy farmed salmon in the first place.
There has been a debate recently about the safety and use of genetically farmed salmon. These salmon have been genetically modified to grow bigger and faster yet require 10% less food. It’s called the AquAdvantage salmon. It has genes inserted in it from its close cousin the Chinook salmon and from something called the pout fish. The combination of this genetically engineered animal allows it to grow faster, larger and year round instead of just the warmer months.
This debate has made its way to the FDA who has yet to make a decision on whether to allow its sale. So far all they have concluded is that “it is safe for human consumption.” I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in that because they also deem things like aspartame, artificial food dyes and high fructose corn syrup “safe for human consumption.”
There are several problems I see with genetically engineered salmon:
1. Environmental Impact
This is a biggie. These salmon are not natural but they are farmed in natural environments. They are farmed in the open ocean in huge nets that allow them to swim freely, more or less. What happens when one escapes? Millions of fish that are farmed in this manner escape every year. They are sure to escape and because they are bigger and faster they will out compete the truly wild fish for everything from mates to food. Then we will have genetically modified fish and non-genetically modified fish mixed together. Why is this a problem? Because the native salmon populations are already in danger and anything that could possibly eliminate them is a serious threat. This qualifies. It’s also problematic because our salmon population will no longer be pure. No one can predict how nature will react and this is walking a dangerous line.
2. Is it safe to eat?
At this point, this is a question that remains unanswered. I can say this though – an animal is born with a natural genetic code. It has evolved over millions of years to operate best with that genetic code. Changing that genetic code is potentially dangerous and could possibly have unknown consequences. Genetic codes do change, that we know. However, they do not change overnight as is the case with this new salmon. They change over thousands of years and generation after generation is allowed to adapt. We cannot possibly know what kind of impact allowing a fish to grow twice as fast will have on the quality of the meat or how it will affect it on a molecular level. What if this rapid growth causes the production of an unwanted chemical within the muscle of these new fish? What if that chemical, unknown to us, is dangerous the human health? The possibility is there and it is dangerous.
3. Will you know you are eating this FrankenSalmon?
Should it be allowed for sale in the US, you will not be able to tell what kind of salmon you are eating. Because the FDA says the genetically engineered salmon is not substantially different from regular salmon, AquaBounty wouldn’t be required to label it as genetically engineered. This leaves us with basically no choice. You could of course only consume wild salmon and you would be safe. I always recommend this, but I am also a realist and know that it’s not always possible to get wild salmon everywhere you go. This salmon will be farmed in Panama and currently it would be the only salmon farmed in Panama so under current labeling laws it would have to state that. This may be another way to tell if it is genetically modified. Unless something is done to make sure that genetically modified salmon are labeled as so, I fear people will be consuming them without knowing it and without a real choice in the matter.
Genetically engineering food is a slippery slope. It opens up the proverbial can of worms. Putting these fish into our food supply is a dangerous act and could lead to problems down the road in the environment and in human health. At this point we simply do not know enough to safely put this into our diets. Much more research and time needs to be dedicated to finding out whether this is safe for long term human consumption.