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.