GM fish set for supermarket shelves after U.S. watchdog rules ‘Frankenfish’ is safe for environment
Genetically modified salmon could soon be found on supermarket fish counters after the U.S. food safety watchdog ruled it posed no environmental risks, it emerged today.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it could find no valid scientific reasons to ban production of Atlantic salmon engineered with extra genes from two other fish species.
If it is now given final approval, the fish will be the first GM animal to hit supermarket shelves anywhere in the world – and in the U.S. they may not even be labelled as modified.
Growth spurt: The overwhelming size comparison of a genetically modified AquAdvantage Salmon, compared to a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling in the foreground of the same age, are seen
The FDA has already indicated the AquAdvantage salmon was safe for human consumption, but published a draft ruling on Friday declaring it unlikely to damage the environment.
Their two extra genes make the fish grow twice as fast as normal Atlantic salmon and supporters say it could make land-based fish farms much easier and cheaper to run.
But opponents of the ‘Frankenfish’ technology warn it could escape and interbreed with wild fish, undermining the genetics of the already-endangered Atlantic salmon – known as the ‘king of fishes’.
They also argue that commercial production of the salmon could be beginning of concerted efforts to concoct other GM animals for human consumption, raising concerns about animal welfare and human health.
There are now few hurdles remaining before the GM fish can be lawfully produced and sold in shops in the U.S., which could put pressure on the UK and Europe to follow suit.
Several government and EU bodies would have to review the technology before it could be approved in the UK, but sucessive government chief scientists have already backed GM as a concept for increasing food production.
So far, it is only consumer opposition that has blocked the approval of GM foods in the UK, although some products on supermarket shelves already contain GM ingredients and they are regularly found in animal feed.
Restrictions: Some of the fish eggs are seen which are born all female and sterile, though AquaBounty says a small percentage may still be able to breed
AquAdvantage salmon are all female, possess three chromosomes instead of the usual two, and grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of the usual 30 required for Atlantic salmon.
AquaBounty Technologies, the company behind the fish, claim the risk of interbreeding with wild salmon is low because their fish are all sterile and grown in secure containers on land-based fish farms.
The FDA’s draft assessment, part of a New Animal Drug Application (NADA), agrees with the company, ruling that the possibility of the GM salmon escaping into rivers and the sea is ‘extremely unlikely’, The Independent reported.
The document concludes that the fish ‘will not have any significant impacts on the quality of the human environment of the United States (including populations of endangered Atlantic salmon) when produced and grown under the conditions of use for the proposed action.’
But anti-GM groups have raised concerns about the report. Peter Riley of pressure group GM Freeze told The Independent: ‘The sterility system does not guarantee that there will be no escapes into the wild and some of them will be fully fertile.
‘It’s also debatable whether anyone wants to buy GM salmon, even in the U.S., it it is properly labelled.’
The FDA will take comments from the public for 60 days before making the report final. The agency said more than two years ago that the fish appears to be safe to eat, but the agency had taken no public action since then.
Executives for Massachusetts-based Aquabounty speculated that the government was delaying action on their application due to opposition from groups against genetically modified food animals.
Method: The AquaAdvantage salmon, seen growing in their facility’s tanks, has an added growth hormone from the Pacific Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce growth hormone all year long
Experts view the release of the environmental report as the final step before approval.
AquaBounty has maintained that the fish is safe and that there are several safeguards against environmental problems. The fish would be bred female and sterile, though a very small percentage might still be able to breed.
The AquaAdvantage salmon has an added growth hormone from the Pacific Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce growth hormone all year long.
The engineers were able to keep the hormone active by using another gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout that acts like an ‘on’ switch for the hormone.
This means AquAdvantage salmon grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of the usual 30 required for Atlantic salmon, which produce the growth hormone for only part of the year.
It is still unclear whether the public will have an appetite for the fish if it is approved, however it may not matter since consumers may not even know if they are eating them.
According to U.S. guidelines, the fish need not be labelled as genetically modified if the agency decides it has the same material make-up as conventional salmon.
AquaBounty says that genetically modified salmon have the same flavour, texture, colour and odour as the conventional fish, and the FDA so far has not shown any signs of disagreeing.
No change: AquaBounty says that genetically modified salmon have the same flavor, texture, color and odor as the conventional fish, and the FDA so far has not shown any signs of disagreeing
Wenonah Hauter, director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said forgoing labelling not only ignores consumers’ rights to know what they are eating, but ‘is simply bad for business, as many will avoid purchasing any salmon for fear it is genetically engineered.’
She urged members of Congress to block the impending approval of the fish. Congressional opposition to the engineered fish has so far been led by members of the Alaska delegation, who see the modified salmon as a threat to the state’s wild salmon industry.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, for Alaska, said on Friday she is working to convince fellow senators that approval for the fish should be stopped.
‘This is especially troubling as the agency is ignoring the opposition by salmon and fishing groups, as well as more than 300 environmental, consumer and health organisations,’ she said of the preliminary approval.