Okay, that was a bad joke. But it’s a bit like what a real company is doing with salmon. A Massachusetts firm called AquaBounty has invented a genetically engineered fish that has a mixture of DNA from Atlantic Salmon and Pacific Chinook salmon, as well as genes from an eel-like critter called the ocean pout.
The result is a living being with a trademark on it: the AquaAdvantage salmon. The modified animals grow in fish farms, twice as fast and much larger than normal salmon. (The photo above shows an AquaAdvantage salmon, in rear, compared to a wild Atlantic salmon, in front.)
If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves it, the AquaAdvantage salmon would be the first laboratory altered animal used for food anywhere in the world. But would that set a good precedent?
AquaBounty’s plan is to create the eggs in a laboratory in Canada; grow the fish in Central America; and then ship them to supermarkets and restaurants across the U.S. and elsewhere, according to the company’s website.
“AquaAdvantage Salmon will be sterile, and therefore cannot establish reproductively active, self-sustaining populations in their rearing systems, or the wild,” the company says.
Critics are fighting to stop what they call the “frankenfish,” arguing that random genetic mutation will mean that a tiny percentage of the “sterile” fish will actually be able to reproduce -- and perhaps eventually replace or kill off -- native wild salmon.
“These genetically engineered salmon could get out, and could, in fact, breed with other wild salmon,” said JayDee is Hanson, Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington D.C. “We’re concerned that you would end up with a contaminated wild salmon line. You might end up with fish that aren’t as hardy as the wild fish just at the time we are trying to restore these wild populations.”
AquaBounty declined comment. But on its website the company argues that the modified salmon will be carefully confined in tanks from which escape into the wild will be unlikely.
The flap over salmon has re-ignited an older debate over whether genetic modification of animals and plants is a useful tool to feed a growing human population.
“We’re facing a challenge. The global population is burgeoning, and we are expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050,” said Dr. Kathleen Enright, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “The United Nations projects that we’re going to need to double our food production. And we’re going to need to do that with better practices, better products, and better genetics, including genetically modified food.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists warns that genetic modification can create unexpected side-effects. For example, the company Monsanto since the 1980s has genetically altered corn to make it resistant to an herbicide, Roundup. So more of the herbicide is sprayed, creating herbicide-resistant superweeds.
On the other side of the debate, Dr. Nina Fedoroff, a geneticist and chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it is irrational to oppose genetically modified food. Soybeans, sugar beets, among other common foods have been genetically modified for decades, with no health problems documented, she said. Corn was originally engineered -– invented, really -- not by Monsanto, but by Indians who cross bred grasses in Southern Mexico about 6,000 years ago, Fedoroff said.
“There is no evidence that it’s dangerous to use these techniques, and we have spooked people and they have assumed it’s dangerous, even when it’s not,” said Dr. Fedoroff. “That’s a tragedy.”
Her organization opposes mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, which was proposed but failed in a California voter referendum last fall.
Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that California referendum failed in part because of effective but misleading advertising campaigns by the biotechnology industry, not because average citizens don’t want labeling of genetically modified food.
“I don’t think concern about genetic engineering is irrational,” said Dr. Gurian-Sherman. “The argument that we’ve been eating it for a long time, so therefore this food is safe –- that is completely bogus, scientifically. There have been no epidemiological studies to determine that.”
The debate is now on your plate, although you may not know it, because “frankenfish” may be appearing under the alias “salmon with lemon butter” on the menu.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo at top, from AquaBounty, of AquaAdvantage Salmon, in rear.)