A giant leap into the unknown:

A giant leap into the unknown: GM salmon that grows and grows

A landmark in genetic modification is provoking fierce reactions

Its many detractors have called it the "Frankenfish". They say it will leave poison on our dinner plates and spoil the marine environment. Its proponents, meanwhile, argue that a genetically modified salmon could help preserve the oceans and feed the world for decades to come.

The GM Atlantic salmon grows twice as fast as its wild cousin. Its genes have been artificially augmented with DNA taken from two other fish – the Pacific Chinook salmon and an eel-like species called an ocean pout (Zoarces americanus) – in order to boost the growth hormone that allows it continually to put on weight throughout the year.

After two decades of research and development, and almost as many years of legislative wrangling, the company behind the GM salmon believes that it now stands on the verge of an historic decision by the powerful US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that will open the way to the sale of genetically engineered meat and fish both in the United States and the rest of the world.

Yesterday, the FDA held a public consultation on the sort of labelling the GM salmon should be given, following an exhaustive scientific review which found there were few serious concerns about the risk either to human health or to the natural environment. A spokeswoman for the administration said a final decision on whether to approve the sale of the GM salmon eggs can now go ahead. "There is no timeline on a decision on the application, but I would predict it more along the lines of months, rather than weeks," she told The Independent.

The Massachusetts company AquaBounty Technologies believes it has done everything possible to show that farmed GM salmon will be both safe for humans to eat as well as being harmless to the marine environment – although this had done little to quell the concerns of its detractors.

There is little risk of the GM salmon escaping to the wild, because they are designed to be grown in fish-farm tanks on land rather than in pens out at sea. Even if they do escape, the fish will not interbreed with wild salmon because the GM eggs have been designed to develop into sterile females, said Ron Stotish, AquaBounty's chief executive.

But there is already fierce opposition to the principle of GM salmon from consumer groups, animal welfare organisations and environmentalists. A coalition of 31 such groups in the US has stated their implacable opposition to a product they believe is potentially dangerous to human health and the environment, as well as cruel and painful for the GM fish, which they say are created to grow unnaturally fast.

If the FDA gives its approval, which many commentators believe is now inevitable given that its scientists have found little to argue against doing so, the opponents of the GM salmon insist that it should at least be clearly labelled as a product of genetic engineering. "It is essential to label a genetically engineered animal so that any unexpected effects will be recognised and consumer health protected," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at the US Consumers Union, who disagrees with the FDA's ruling that genetic engineering in itself does not constitute a material difference between the GM fish and its wild counterpart.

The FDA's own scientific evaluation, however, is that the modified genes inserted into the GM salmon are unlikely to give rise to any adverse effects to human health, either directly from toxic effects such as allergic reactions, or indirectly from metabolic by-products of the genetic modification.

In the US, the FDA has already ruled that meat from cloned cattle, pigs and goats is as safe to eat as meat from conventionally bred livestock. GM animals, however, fall under different legal provisions and as such must receive formal approval before they can be sold for human consumption.

If, as expected, the FDA eventually approves the sale of the GM salmon, it will mark an important precedent in the technological changes to the human food chain that some scientists believe are essential if we are to feed the extra three billion people expected to be living on the planet by the middle of the century. Its approval will lead to calls for similar licences in Britain and the rest of Europe.

AquaBounty Technologies argues that biologically the fish are no different to wild salmon, yet can be grown on fish farms more efficiently than conventional farmed salmon, making them less harmful to the environment. Because GM salmon are designed to be reared in tanks on land, they are closer to the markets, thus lowering transport costs and the corresponding carbon footprint.

Scientists have warned that the marine environment, which has already suffered from decades of intensive overfishing, is close to collapse. Yet the demand for fish has increased at a time when stocks have dwindled. Humans face a stark choice between giving up eating many kinds of wild-caught fish, or turning to alternatives such as captive-bred animals. GM technology offers one potential solution to the problem of feeding a growing human population, but it is one solution among many.

What is clear is that an overwhelming proportion of consumers have yet to be convinced of the benefits of GM animals for food.

GM Foods: The facts

Genetically modified (GM) animals are created using a technology which alters their DNA, thus changing their genetic make-up permanently. Often these "transgenic" animals have DNA inserted into their genome from another, unrelated species.

Agricultural researchers have experimented extensively with GM technology to improve the performance of domestic animals. Growth-hormone genes were seen as a way of boosting muscle growth, but many early experiments were stopped after disastrous results.

The most notable failure in this research was the "Beltsville pig" produced by the US Department of Agriculture in the early 1980s. The pig had a human growth-hormone gene inserted into its DNA which was supposed to make it grow faster and leaner. However, this caused disturbing growth deformities that crippled the animals.

Other attempts at creating GM animals have focused on the possibility of producing valuable human proteins in their milk. This "biopharming" was seen as a way of making new drugs that could not be easily made by other means.

Similar research has centred on creating GM animals with organs that could be transplanted into humans without fear of tissue rejection.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'