The Food and Drug Administration has just approved the first-ever genetically modified animal for human consumption — an Atlantic salmon that's engineered to grow much faster than regular salmon and require less feed.
Approval for the "AquAdvantage salmon" has been decades in the making and rife with delays. Back in 2010, the FDA determined that this salmon was just as safe to eat as conventional salmon.
But as is common with GMO foods, controversy ensued. Environmental groups and food safety activists have argued that the modified fish could conceivably cause problems, like threatening local fish populations. An expert FDA panel disagreed, arguing that the fish was "highly unlikely to cause any significant effects on the environment."
Meanwhile, the salmon's backers, a company named AquaBounty Technologies, have argued that their fish, which carries growth-enhancing genes from two other fish, will have all sorts of benefits. Because the salmon grows so quickly (in 18 to 24 months instead of the usual 30), it is cheaper to produce, and farms have less impact on the environment.
Now it seems the FDA agrees, approving AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption. It's still unclear how many food manufacturers will actually sell this fish or how long it will take AquaBounty to scale up production to reach consumers. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest notes, "While today's decision marks the first approval of a GE food animal, its impact on American consumers will be negligible. It will take months for AquaBounty to produce and export GE salmon for consumers to purchase."
It's also unclear whether anyone will notice. Right now any company that decides to sell AquAdvantage salmon doesn't have to label it as such, according to the FDA. But several grocery stores have already said they won't carry the fish — a response to an ongoing battle, with some activists pushing for consumer labels in many states and many scientists arguing that it's completely unnecessary.
The long, tangled history of AquAdvantage salmon
The AquAdvantage salmon was first designed at Canada's Memorial University in 1989, and purchased by the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company that now owns the fish, AquaBounty Technologies.
What makes the AquAdvantage salmon unique is that it contains genetic material from two other fish: a growth hormone from Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout that helps unlock that growth hormone. Those modifications allow the salmon to grow at about twice the speed of regular salmon.
AquaBounty first asked the FDA to approve the fish for human consumption in 1996. But the FDA said because this was the first genetically modified animal that would be eaten by humans, the agency wanted to take it slow and weigh the pros and cons. (The agency has already approved a large number of genetically modified plants for consumption, including varieties of corn, soy, papaya, and sugar beets, deeming them just as safe to eat as regular crops.)
The salmon does have benefits: Because it grows so fast, it's cheaper for manufacturers to produce. AquaBounty also says that it's much more environmentally friendly. In particular, the salmon are harvested in onshore containment facilities, which, an AquaBounty researcher said, causes "less degradation of the environment, less disease spread," and also requires less feed. With a fast-growing global population that eats a lot of fish, this type of production could be a good thing.
Yet critics have often worried about the downsides — specifically, what would happen if these fish escape from their farms and interbreed with natural populations? Members of Congress, especially from states with big salmon industries, have opposed the technology for this reason. The fish have also been the subject of general (and frequently unjustified) unease about GMOs. In 2011, some lawmakers even called for an outright ban on the fish.
Scientists who looked into the issue have concluded that the fish is safe for your dinner table and the environment. Five years ago, an FDA advisory panel determined that the GM food is "as safe as food from conventional salmon" and that it's "highly unlikely to cause any significant effects on the environment." That's been the consensus of others in the scientific community who have studied the genetically modified foods approved so far by the FDA.
The FDA is limiting the breeding areas for these salmon
Of course, there's always the remote risk that something goes wrong. To reduce the risk of interbreeding, the FDA approval stipulates that the GM salmon can only be raised at two specific containment facilities, one in Canada and one in Panama — and not yet in the United States. "In fact," the FDA wrote, "under this approval, no other facilities or locations, in the United States or elsewhere, are authorized for breeding or raising AquAdvantage Salmon that are intended for marketing as food to US consumers."
The FDA says it will inspect the facilities, as will the governments in Canada and Panama. AquaBounty will also be required to take a number of measures to ensure safety:
These measures include a series of multiple and redundant levels of physical barriers placed in the tanks and in the plumbing that carries water out of the facilities to prevent the escape of eggs and fish. Finally, the AquAdvantage Salmon are reproductively sterile so that even in the highly unlikely event of an escape, they would be unable to interbreed or establish populations in the wild.
If the experiment goes well, AquaBounty could apply to begin harvesting the fish at other containment facilities — in the US or elsewhere. So the Canada and Panama units may be the start.
Will anyone buy the salmon?
Of course, the future of the fish will depend on whether food manufacturers sell them — and whether consumers buy them.
It's possible that no one will notice the change and everyone will go on as before. Food manufacturers are under no obligation to label GMO ingredients (although activists have been pushing to change that in many states). So it might just appear alongside regular salmon, with no one the wiser. Since the FDA determined AquAdvantage salmon is just as safe to eat as regular salmon, nothing will change.
Alternatively, we could start to see voluntary labels pop up. If there is a lot of public worry around the fish, some food manufacturers may choose to label their non-AquAdvantage salmon as non-GM. The FDA released two guidance documents today explaining how manufacturers can go about doing that.
If, for whatever reason, you'd really prefer not to eat the salmon, the FDA said you can always stick with "wild-caught salmon." AquAdvantage fish will never be sold under that label.
But how does it taste?
One reason the FDA doesn't think transgenic fish need to be labeled is because there's no "material difference" between genetically modified salmon and any other, meaning its nutritional profile and texture are the same.
But since these fish have grown at a faster pace, and have access to less biodiversity in their tanks, they could conceivably taste a little different, maybe blander.
Until they're available to consumers, it'll be difficult to know. For now, according to the AquaBounty website, any difference is a good thing: Blind taste tests have "consistently found that our AquAdvantage Salmon is among the world’s most delicious." One food writer who tried the fish said, "The flesh is exquisite. Buttery, light, juicy. Just as Atlantic salmon should be."