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Would You Eat AquAdvantage Salmon If Approved?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s been a long battle for AquaBounty Technologies and its divisive fish. Twenty years in the making, the first transgenic animal created for consumption – a doubly fast growing salmon – is now in its last leg of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process.

Regardless of the regulatory hoops AquAdvantage salmon must bound, it’s the social hurdles that, in the end, may prove whether this fish will swim or sink.

The small, scaly fish has polarized people, sending fear, indifference and admiration throughout scientific and environmental communities, as well as the general public.

All this, even after a draft Environmental Assessment was done in the early months of 2012. The finding’s of which reaffirmed the FDA’s previous conclusions that the genetically engineered (GE) salmon is as safe to eat as conventional farm-raised Atlantic salmon. The Assessment also says that it’s very unlikely the GE salmon could escape into the environment, and even if by some odd chance it did, the salmon would be incapable of reproducing since they will be “effectively sterile.”

The FDA’s findings have not quelled the concerns of opponents. Food safety critics believe it’s a Mad-Max test that could go disastrously wrong.

One of these, the Center for Food Safety, is concerned that even if 99% percent of the triploid GE fish are infertile, the remaining 1%, or 150,000 salmon, are fertile if the facility is producing 15 million eggs/year, would not be, says J.D. Hanson, a Food Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety. If released into the environment, these virile salmon could reproduce and compete with wild salmon populations.

Instead of proceeding with approval, he wants the FDA to undertake a full environmental impact statement. He would also like to see AquAdvantage salmon regulated as a food additive, rather than as an animal drug, so that its health effects on humans can be fully determined.

In direct response to the FDA approval process, a new bill, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, is circulating through congress. It would mandate any GM food ingredient be labelled. Also, the supermarkets Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Aldi, are a few on a list of food providers refusing to stock their shelves with transgenic food product.

AquaBounty’s answer to naysayers is that the production of AquAdvantage salmon is in the interest of both the environment and consumers. On the company’s website, it says that their objective is to use the technology of genetic engineering to “contribute to increasing aquaculture productivity in an efficient, safe and sustainable manner to meet the demand for high quality seafood from a growing world population.” And demand is growing.

“Between 2000-2004, Americans alone ate an average of about 284,000 metric tons of salmon annually, of which two-thirds was farmed,” states the FDA’s Environmental Assessment.

Despite all the hubbub, the FDA is the final authority who will make the decision whether or not the first genetically engineered food animal will arrive in supermarkets across the country. According to AquaBounty’s CEO Ronald Stotish, as quoted in the Guardian, the company should receive approval by the end of the year.

If  Stotish’s prediction is correct, what I want to know is would you eat the salmon?


Correction: An earlier version of this blog misstated that, “Between 2000-2004, Americans alone ate an average of about 284,000 million tons of salmon annually, of which two-thirds was farmed.” It has been corrected to 284,000 metric tons.

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Joshua B 5:15 pm 04/26/2013

    I certainly would if I liked Salmon. For someone who does like Salmon though, I really hope it preserves the taste and texture, and only produces larger fish. I mean in reality isn’t Beef products already feed the same kind of stuff. I know it’s a drug feed to them but wouldn’t it be easier to genetically modify cows to whatever extent we need. I think in the future GM will be much more common in everything we consume. I can say I very strongly support this measure for better or worse because nature isn’t keeping up with the energy consumption of humans.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 7:18 pm 04/26/2013

    Sure I would try it. If it passes the taste test the only concern I would have is this:

    “…the Center for Food Safety, is concerned that even if 99% percent of the triploid GE fish are infertile, the remaining 1%, or 150,000 fertile species if the facility is producing 15 million eggs/year, would not be, says J.D. Hanson, a Food Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety. If released into the environment, these virile salmon could reproduce and compete with wild salmon populations.”

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  3. 3. Acoyauh2 7:20 pm 04/26/2013

    Selective- and cross-breeding of most of today’s plants and animals raised for consumption equate to a very, very slow genetic enigineering. Intensive farming pumps so many chemicals into our food chain it’s surprising we’re not growing another head from our navels or sumthin’

    I would look for a) Hormone or proto-hormone resudue in the procuct (we already eat too much of these in our meat/poultry), and b) safety for the environment. Some of Monsanto’s products, for instance, seem more scary than this guy here. Still, suitable safety measures should be taken so they don’t pull a ‘life will find a way’ kind of escape into the wild.

    Not sure I trust the government to fully assess these, but since so far this seems an hypothetical question, I’d say, given the above reasonable assurances, yes. Realistically, and sarcasm apart, probably not. But keep trying, we’ll need these kind of developments anyways, eventually.

    Heehee, this ain’t an answer, is it?…

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  4. 4. Actually 8:16 pm 04/26/2013

    Of course I would eat it. Eating GM salmon is the ethically correct choice. Read what they did–they made a growth hormone (for salmon) be secreted year round rather than only in the summer. Hormones (well, the biological sort) do not build up in the body, so eating one is akin to eating a larger non-GM salmon in the summer. Eating this fish is the ethical thing to do, it will reduce overuse of fish stocks, a major factor in the poverty of nations like Somalia (overfishing by large organizations caused fishermen in Somalia to abandon that activity and instead use their boats for piracy.
    The genetic diversity of fish is large and deep enough that this gene is unlikely to spread and outcompete other fish.

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  5. 5. russ_elf 8:43 pm 04/26/2013

    “Between 2000-2004, Americans alone ate an average of about 284,000 million tons of salmon annually between , of which two-thirds was farmed”

    284,000,000,000 Tonnes in 4 years? I doubt it.

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  6. 6. russ_elf 8:47 pm 04/26/2013

    2.6 Tonnes per day per person. That’s a lot of Salmon!

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  7. 7. Aunt Jimmie 8:53 pm 04/26/2013

    I doubt it also. There are only around 350, 000,000 in the country and many of us don’t like or eat salmon at all.

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  8. 8. Aunt Jimmie 8:53 pm 04/26/2013

    I doubt it also. There are only around 350, 000,000 in the country and many of us don’t like or eat salmon at all.

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  9. 9. leaf6 8:56 pm 04/26/2013

    For me, it all comes down to the presentation, taste, smell, and texture. If there is chance that those attributes are inferior to the original Atlantic salmon, there should be a tentatively equally likely chance that the genetically modified salmon could taste better. As for environmental concerns, staying away from large natural bodies of water is probably the best bet.

    The article seems to emphasize the time it takes for the original and genetically modified salmon to reach adult size. Then are the adult sizes for both fish similar?

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  10. 10. jimmybo 9:32 pm 04/26/2013

    If they are going to farm these GM salmon, all the farms need to be located around river and streams that has no wild salmon, so if any escape, there is a lesser chance of them crossing with the wild ones (keep in mind salmon tend to go back waters they were hatched in to breed).

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  11. 11. squidboy6 10:43 pm 04/26/2013

    I don’t like farm raised salmon, and compared to wild salmon it really sucks, but if the feed is good and the product is similar to wild salmon, then I would have no trouble eating it. The diet is going to be more important when it comes to taste, and texture, farm raised salmon is distinctly poor as compared to wild fish, will have a lot to do with it.

    Then again, I usually get my own fish so I’m spoiled by really good fish. One fish, Calico Bass or Kelp Bass, isn’t fished commercially, only by sportsmen. This fish is so good it make sole seem dull by comparison.

    Lately I take fewer and fewer fish but every now and then a halibut comes in handy…

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  12. 12. Owl905 10:47 pm 04/26/2013

    The growing pens won’t be in the USA – they’ll be in Canada and Panama and elsewhere. Having a report describe the containment safety procedures for a foreign country isn’t worth the electrons it takes to read it. The eggs, and the process, will be on the black market in a blink.

    “Therefore, FDA has made a preliminary determination that an environmental impact statement will not be prepared.” – FDA Report

    Time to discuss the salmon’s appetite and reproductive cycle – before we add another zebra mollusc or asian carp to seascape.

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  13. 13. Mendrys 12:41 am 04/27/2013

    I would think that the fact that it eats 25 percent less food yet grows so much quicker the quality of the meat would be affected. If it is not or is perhaps somehow better then it may be beneficial to proceed with the approval.

    The number given regarding how much salmon Americans eat is so preposterously large its hard to even guess how much it was supposed to say. Some of my English friends may use the term “thousand million” but most Americans would say 284 billion tons. So maybe it is really 284 million tons a year. That would still make it about 4.7 lbs a day which still seems rather large.

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  14. 14. Owl905 1:34 am 04/27/2013

    NOAA citation – Americans eat an average 2lbs of salmon a year.

    USA pop = 312million

    Transl. 625 million lbs a year; calc /2200 = 284,000 metric tons per year. Looks like someone who, until recently, worked at the FDA, added the ‘millions’.

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  15. 15. cameron504 3:45 am 04/27/2013

    I would never be so irresponsible as to eat this fish. To do so would mean contributing to an experiment without precedent, except in the natural cases where these types of organisms are known as invasive species.

    The fact that even 1% of eggs are viable, and some will reach outside controlled breeding grounds creates a perilous environment for all salmon species.

    The FDA is the wrong agency to evaluate this organism. This is not the case of a medical solution to an urgent problem, where no other answers exist. And aquaculture itself produces many of the same types of disease issues as industrial farming.

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  16. 16. justin ou 7:00 am 04/27/2013

    In my opinion, I think GE-animal is the future of the world.
    In this ever-growing population of our generation, it’s inevitable and destined that we reach the limits of our natural resources. If we are gonna sustain the current pattern of food consumption, we must utilize the technologies that could provide food at pace with the global population growth, or maybe the rich countries must change the way they eat, which is IMPOSSIBLE. So even with possible threats we may face in this new field, we had better make sure the food is secure to the human body, and start to enjoy the potential benefits it brings.

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  17. 17. N a g n o s t i c 9:02 am 04/27/2013

    “’s the social hurdles..”
    Really? I guess a few well-placed and publicised hurdles do wonders. As far as the bulk of salmon eaters are concerned, they could care less. I wonder at the scathing treatment tangelos would receive should they be introduced today.
    “’s a Mad-Max test..”
    I’d say Dr Moreau instead. Mad Max (no hyphen required) is a mechanical analogy.
    “..these virile salmon..”
    In context, virile has nothing to do with egg production.

    I’d eat the fish if I liked salmon. I don’t.

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  18. 18. krohleder 9:40 am 04/27/2013

    No I would not. The evolution of a species intimate relationship with its food occurs over millions of years. There is virtually a zero chance that there will not be a side effect. Even food we have evolved with causes problems sometimes. Food that has been with us for thousands of years, instead of millions of years, still cause problems: like wheat and gluten. If we create sustainable fish farms, like the biologist Miguel, who in Veta la Palma produces 1,200 tons of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year, then we may not have these problem. Real solutions are understanding and leveraging nature instead of using the outdated 19th century factory model.

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  19. 19. rboyd 3:38 pm 04/27/2013

    Apologies to all for the typo for average annual consumption of salmon. The statistic was supposed to say 284,000 metric tons, not million tons. I will correct this.

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  20. 20. lump1 4:13 pm 04/27/2013

    Not only would I eat it, but I would prefer it over other farm-raised salmon, because I’d know that it is depleting fewer resources and causing less pollution.

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  21. 21. OgreMk5 11:50 am 04/29/2013

    I wrote on this a few days ago and found some peer-reviewed research on the breeding and release issues that have been raised.

    Basically, these fish are out-competed by wild fish. Indeed the issue of escape and survivability is included in the FDA report. First the fish would have to escape with multiple containment systems since they would be raised in land-based farms, not sea-based farms. OK, someone could steal eggs and release them into the wild (why anyone would do this boggles the mind, but we’ll go with it).

    Second, could the GM salmon survive and compete with wild salmon? Multiple peer-reviewed reports suggest that they cannot.

    Third, even if they could (or a small percentage could) could the salmon breed with wild (or other-wise non-GM) fish? Again, peer-reviewed research indicates that it is unlikely.

    Fourth, even if they could clear all of those hurdles, can the rDNA get into the population and affect the wild populations and/or environments?

    The report concludes that all of these factors show that the chances of the salmon creating ecological problems are very, very low.

    I’d just like to add, for the people who hate modification of organisms, something like 80% of all Atlantic salmon have been artificially selected to grow nearly as fast as the GM salmon anyway. I’d be willing to guess that mutation and selection have resulted in a promoter gene that acts almost exactly like the gene that has been added to the GM salmon.

    In other words, if one eats Atlantic salmon now that is not caught wild, then it’s probably modified in the same way that the GM salmon is.

    I know people who only eat wild caught salmon. To me, that’s much more environmentally dangerous than farming the GM fish.

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  22. 22. oldfartfox 5:11 pm 04/29/2013

    I love fresh salmon and eat as much of it as I can, as long as it is wild caught.
    Farm raised salmon is about as palatable as cardboard, or possibly growth hormone stuffed, factory farmed chicken.
    I probably won’t eat GE salmon, not because it is GE, but because I fear that its taste compared to wild will be no better than any other farmed salmon.
    Copper River Coho Rules!

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  23. 23. Embryonic 5:57 pm 04/29/2013

    “or 150,000 fertile species if the facility”. I assume you mean 150,000 individual salmon are fertile?

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  24. 24. hschwind 8:07 pm 04/29/2013

    Yes, I would eat it. We have genetically altered food for thousands of years… not much has changed.

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  25. 25. bongobimbo 7:11 pm 04/30/2013

    I love salmon, have 3 frozen salmon steaks in the freezer right now. But like most confirmed liberals, I’m intrinsically conservative, so I expect I’d never eat it. The reason is that I’m 77 and probably won’t live long enough to give it a fair test for taste, color, that special “salmon” texture, short-term safety, long-term aftereffects, and genetic mutations that may cause unforeseen problems. Thirty years ought to be long enough.

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  26. 26. cautiousguy 11:26 pm 04/30/2013

    No. I would choose not to eat any food that was artificially, genetically engineered if I were able to avoid it. We still know far too little about how the genome really works to be tinkering with it through artificial means in our foods. As several comments point out, at least one of the currently-used aquaculture salmon breeds (SalmoBreed) grows almost as fast as the GM fish, and was obtained using conventional selective breeding techniques. This sounds like another case of a solution looking for a problem, much like Monsanto selling rBGH to the dairy industry when they were already producing too much milk for the US demand.

    out there

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  27. 27. rugeirn 9:20 am 05/4/2013

    If these fish are going to be raised on fish farms, that’s an ecological/environmental problem regardless of the genetics involved. See and Google the subject for more info.

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  28. 28. HelloKSue 10:37 pm 05/29/2013

    Absolutely I will NOT eat GM salmon. How can two years of so-called “hurdles” have tested anything? To claim that is completely unscientific. For starters, we already know that conventional farm raised salmon is much less healthy than wild caught, both for humans AND the environment. I’d rather eat a smaller portion of something that is healthier for me in order to be environmentally responsible. You don’t have to eat a giant size of one thing to enjoy it. I would say the most gastronomic delight is derived from smaller portions of a single item with more variety and clever use of spices and seasonings.

    Next, add an unnatural growth rate to the farming of these fish. The size and growth rates of things in nature must be there for a reason, don’t you think? I’m sure that this has been FULLY explored by the scientific community. Of course, without knowing the nuts and bolts of such things, I suppose you could just conveniently and randomly decide which traits are evolutionary mistakes that we have to improve upon in order to save the planet Perhaps some scientists posses this knowledge, spurred on to save the human species by positive results to their bank accounts, I mean, excuse me, their long and extensive research at their industrial places of employment.

    Second, it is a faustian bargain. If even a few fish escape into the wild (since when have things NOT escaped), that may be the end of wild salmon. And, that, within OUR lifetimes! Human beings will be raising these fish, and of course, humans never make mistakes, especially THIS time, since no flood will ever happen, no shipment of baby fish will ever fall into a river, no act of terrorism will occur, no failure of inept government, etc. Wait, how many salmon eggs does one female produce? Thousands? Hmm… at one percent that means, just 10 or 100 GM escapees, right from a single fish, right? As far as contamination in the wild, the FDA already has a terrible record of protecting nature and organic crops from GM crops.
    I have heard that many Canadian farmers have given up trying to grow organic, GMO-free canola, because the pollution from GM farms is too great. The same sort of thing is a headache for American organic farmers. For example, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for organic soy to be guaranteed to be 100 percent GM free. Once the genie is out of the bottle, well the genie is out. Or what about contamination to other species–NPR just had a show about how the Monarch Butterfly (my fourth grade SCIENCE project, an all-time cool butterfly) is threatened because of the increased use of roundup due to genetically engineered crops. I really don’t put much stock in the FDA’s ability to assess any kind of risk!

    There is a comment that I hear ad-nauseam, that “we’ve already been altering foods genetically for thousands of years and this is the same thing.” However, to say that this has been the same process as what is happening in GM labs today, is totally unscientific. This statement is merely metaphorical or poetic. There is no scientific basis to it. Traditional genetic modification still allows nature to take a bigger course, and is largely achieved by altering the environment of an organism, not by direct genetic manipulation. What is the scientific basis to the claim that gene-splitting and splicing is the same as sped up breeding? Since when does a new variety of peach or breed of cow developed through conventional methods involve producing something resistant to roundup or fish genes in a tomato? The desire for big business and big money has taken a lot of humility and respect out of science. Genetic modification in the lab is at best in its infancy–genes are extremely complex that are controlled by a myriad of processes. Genetic modification is like an atomic bomb of the biological world: at first explosion, incredibly powerful and heady, with such an incredible ability to cause irrevocable damage. It is fraught with high stakes risks, and any organization (such as the FDA) that claims that the risks are minimal or nonexistant, are not acting on any scientific basis whatsoever, but rather conjecture based again, I’m afraid, on people’s bank accounts rather than cold, hard science. It has been pointed out numerous times that the FDA is in bed with companies such as Monsanto.

    There are so many choices available to us other than this kind of manipulation of nature. Why not put more effort and study into aquaponics or permaculture methods that mimic and work in harmony with nature. What happened to observation and appreciation? Genetic modification of the last twenty years (by big business, not by disinterested scientists) is just the same old idea of man against nature, the idea that nature must be destroyed in some sort of radical way in order for us to make money off of it, and then greenwashed by saying this is a clever way to save the planet.

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  29. 29. bucketofsquid 3:54 pm 05/31/2013

    My initial thought was that people eat salmon and people eat eels so it should be fine. Then I remembered that adding a single hydrogen atom to an oil molecule makes it deadly over long term consumption. A single carbon atom isn’t a bad thing until it bonds with a single oxygen atom. Then it becomes deadly very quickly in sufficient quantity.

    While I doubt that this salmon will cause a zombie plague or anything goofy like that, it may cause long term harm. I will let the more courageous try it first. After a couple of decades without visible harm I’ll give it a try.

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