A genetically modified (GM) salmon has become the first GM animal in the world to be approved for human consumption – but it will not have to be labelled as “GM food”.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ended 20 years of tortuous negotiations by approving the GM Atlantic salmon, which grows twice as fast as ordinary salmon and can be grown in fish tanks in warehouses on land.
FDA approval in the US raises the prospect that the GM salmon could also eventually be approved in other parts of the world, including Britain and Europe, despite fierce public opposition to GM food.
The so-called “Frankenfish” has been bitterly opposed by a coalition of more than 20 anti-GM organisations but their attempts to prevent it from reaching American supermarkets – and eventually the global market – appear now to have failed.
The GM Atlantic salmon is engineered with extra hormone genes from the Pacific Chinook salmon and a “promotor” gene from an eel-like species called the ocean pout. These extra genes boost the salmon’s growth all year round, instead of seasonally, halving the time it takes to reach maturity.
Its inventors at a Massachusetts company called AquaBounty Technologies have argued that the salmon can be grown nearer to end markets with greater efficiency than the Atlantic salmon currently reared in remote coastal fish farms – making it better for the environment, with recycled waste and lower transport costs.
“This announcement signals that such products can be produced safely in our environment and are considered likely to contribute to society's needs,” said Bruce Whitelaw, professor of animal biotechnology of the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, which was not involved in the research.
However, the salmon’s detractors have claimed that the approval sets a dangerous precedent by sanctioning the introduction of GM animals into the human food chain for the first time, as well as raising the spectre of an accidental release into the wild of an artificially-engineered fish that could run amok in the natural marine ecosystem.
“There remain legitimate ecological concerns over the possible consequences if these GM salmon escape to the wild and reproduce, despite FDA assurances over containment and sterility, neither of which can be guaranteed,” said Joe Perry, former chair the GM panel of the European Food Safety Authority.
The FDA said that the patent-protected fish, known as AquAdvantage Salmon, is safe it eat, meets the company’s claim about faster growth, and can be safely contained in land-based tanks with little risk of escape into the wild, especially given that the GM salmon are sterile females incapable of breeding.
However, the FDA’s approval only extends to land-based fish hatcheries at two specific locations, in Canada and Panama. The approval will not cover any other facilities in the US or elsewhere in the world unless there are separate environmental-impact assessments, the FDA emphasised.
“The FDA has thoroughly analysed and evaluated the data and information submitted by AquaBounty Technologies regarding AquAdvantage Salmon and determined that they have met the regulatory requirements for approval, including that food from the fish is safe to eat,” said Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA’s centre for veterinary medicine.
The FDA also said that there is no “material difference” between the GM Atlantic salmon and the non-GM Atlantic salmon which means there will be no compulsory requirement for the product to be labelled as GM produce.
Detailed scientific assessments have concluded that the GM salmon is just as nutritious as non-GM salmon and that there are “no biologically differences to the nutritional profile” of the GM salmon compared to other types of farmed salmon, the FDA said.
The FDA said that it will be issuing guidance to companies on how to label products voluntarily, if they want to.
“We recognise that some consumers are interested in knowing whether food ingredients are derived from [GM] sources,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
A spokesman for AquaBounty said that the original application to the FDA was made in 1995 and the amount of time it has taken for it to be assessed and approved has been unprecedented. “Our kids have grown up in that time. It is normal? I don’t think so,” he said.
It will take at least another two years for AquaBounty to build up capacity for commercial production, he added.
Ronald Stotish, chief executive officer of AquaBounty said in a statement that the GM salmon is a “game changer” that brings healthy, nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the marine habitat.
“Using land-based aquaculture systems, this rich source of protein and other nutrients can be farmed close to major consumer markets in a more sustainable manner,” Dr Stotish said.
The US currently imports more than 95 per cent of the Atlantic salmon it consumes. If the GM salmon takes off in America, there will be pressure to introduce it other regions of the world, including Europe, despite public disquiet over GM food.
“Genetic modification technologies provide additional tools for breed-improvement that have potential to contribute to sustainable and efficient production of animals for food, an increasing challenge for society,” said Professor Helen Sang of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.
All salmon caught in England to be returned
All salmon caught in England’s rivers and estuaries must be returned to the water under a new Government proposal to protect the fish’s rapidly declining population.
Fisheries Minister George Eustice is working with the Environment Agency to ensure as many salmon as possible are able to complete their migration to spawn.
A consultation on the measure opens next year. It seeks to increase the proportion of salmon anglers’ catch-and-return in England’s rivers and estuaries from its current, voluntary, level of 77 per cent, to 100 per cent.
Commercial fishing would be banned, although it only accounts for a small portion of the salmon caught in England. Sea fishing would not be in the proposals.
“The sight of salmon leaping in our rivers has always been an essential element of our countryside, but factors including climate change means their numbers are in sharp decline and we must act,” said Mr Eustice.
Tom BawdenReuse content