Food: Why the Debate Over GM Salmon Misses the Point

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Will the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve a genetically modified salmon for sale in supermarkets around the country? Bet on it. Members of a federal advisory group in Maryland heard testimony on Sunday and Monday from scientists, environmentalists and businesspeople on the safety of AquaAdvantage salmon, a new brand that would be the first genetically engineered animal to enter the U.S. food supply. Though panel members—made up out outside experts in veterinary medicine, health and toxicology—had tough questions about the potential allergic effects of the GM salmon, and found fault with the lack of in-depth studies from the FDA, it seems unlikely they’ll stand in the way of what some activists have termed the “frankenfish.” (Which, unfortunately, has nothing to do with this.) Here’s what Gregory Jaffe, a panel member and the biotechnology director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Lyndsey Layton at the Washington Post:

In some areas, we said we need more information to do the analysis. I think the agency is going to take its time with this, but I anticipate at some point this will be approved by the FDA.

Meredith Melnick has a great post over at Healthland on the background of the AquaAdvantage salmon and the implications for GM food should the FDA decide to approve the fish. (The advisory group that met earlier this week won’t be voting on approval, but will give notes to the FDA—the actual approval would take several months, assuming it goes forward.) Very quickly the AquaAdvantage salmon contains a growth hormone from the Chinook salmon (one of five species of salmon, each with two names—the things you learn in Alaska!), plus a genetic switch from the ocean pout that activates an antifreeze gene. The GM salmon can then produce that growth hormone in cold weather, not just in warm weather, which enables them to grow to market size in 18 months instead of three years.

That’s good for fish farmers—especially AquaBounty, the company that spent $60 million and 10 years developing the GM salmon—but is it good for consumers and the environment? The public will get its chance to to comment on the case today at an open FDA hearing in Maryland, and you can expect the atmosphere to be heated—GM food is a hot-button issue on both sides, and the idea of actually engineering a living species will only intensify those concerns. (Check out Jill Richardson’s article at Grist to get a good overview of the anti-salmon argument.)

One thing is certain: if the world continues to eat more and more seafood, that fish will have to come from aquaculture, because fisheries simply can’t support—sustainably—the global appetite for seafood. (Aquaculture already produces nearly half of the total weight of fish eaten worldwide.) But while GM salmon—and the engineering of other species for food—might help alleviate some of the pressure on wild fish, the debate misses the point. We’ve made an elemental mistake with aquaculture, choosing to farm the fish that we’re used to catching and eating—like salmon or bass or cod—even though these species haven’t taken very well to becoming our chickens of the sea. Even though the salmon farming industry has managed to improve its efficiency, farmed salmon still need about 1 lb. of wild fish for feed per 1 lb. of salmon—so aquaculture becomes another cause behind the long emptying of the sea. The proportion is even worse for species like bluefin tuna, which are just beginning to be farmed. And even a more efficient GM salmon will do nothing to change the environmental problems associated with salmon farming.

The problem is the fish. As Paul Greenberg puts it in his great book Four Fish, we may be raising the wrong species. Instead of carnivores like salmon or tuna, we should be farming species that are naturally better adapted to aquaculture—like the vegetarian species tilapia, or arctic char, which tastes like salmon but can be raised in close quarters, reducing the impact on the surrounding environment. Instead of trying to change the fish to our tastes, maybe we should try changing our tastes to fit the fish.