Anyone who has ever caught and gutted their own fish knows that the entire ordeal can be fairly messy. Even more untidy are the current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and public conversations taking place regarding the acceptance of a new genetically modified salmon. This discussion is currently undergoing a five week comment process that will end on February 25, after which the FDA may officially approve the selling and consumption of what critics are calling the first ever laboratory-created, genetically-fused “Frankenfish.”
AquaBounty Technologies is the Massachusetts-based biotech company responsible for the science behind the genetically modified transgenic salmon. On December 21, 2012, the FDA released an Environmental Assessment (EA) document in support of this newest GMO, which Maria Tchijov of Food and Water Watch says is “the final step before approving its sale across the country.” Engineers created the genetically modified salmon in a laboratory by mixing a growth hormone taken from the Pacific Chinook salmon with a separate gene of an ocean pout, which is a thick, muddy-coloured, eel-like ground fish. AquaBounty AquaAdvantage salmon reach adulthood twice as fast as their normal Atlantic counterparts, and the approval of putting this mass-farmed GMO on supermarket shelves would present favourable revenue opportunities for AquaBounty to target consumers seeking less costly fish. However, there are concerns among the public that have yet to be addressed by the FDA over the approval, production, and marketing of AquaBounty salmon.
The first question to be raised is one of ethics. The genetically modified salmon eggs were developed at Newfoundland’s Memorial University in partnership with the University of Toronto, and are currently being produced at AquaBounty Fish Farm facilities located in Fortune, Prince Edward Island. As mentioned, these eggs are created by merging the biological material of a Chinook salmon with the selected gene of an ocean pout. Many people wonder if permitting human beings to play God, or ultimately the role of any creator, is theologically acceptable. While selective breeding has taken place for centuries, the moral perspective of religious groups on the issue of biotechnology is different because in this case, scientists are literally throwing the DNA from two unrelated species into a blender and waiting with fingers crossed to see what pops out. Arguably, much like Mary Shelley’s reckless young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, one might say that we are not higher powers with the ability to foresee the consequences of such invasive, biological meddling.
Furthermore, concerns have arisen surrounding the environmental effects that will result with the establishment of AquaAdvantage salmon. The genetically altered fish eggs produced in PEI will later be shipped to Panama, where the fish will be raised in controlled pens on massive farms. In a report made by the FDA, an assessment stated that both the PEI and Panama sites were “secure”. Nevertheless, as an added precautionary measure, all AquaBounty fish will be sterile. However, the company will inevitably expand to market the genetically engineered eggs as patented, manufactured goods to satisfy fellow corporation interest. In this case, individual eggs will become more widely distributed, thus making it challenging to ensure the location of each and every egg. Should some eggs (or mature fish) escape from confinement, the environmental effects on naturally occurring Atlantic salmon populations would be disastrous. Additionally, there is no method to date which guarantees 100 percent fish sterility, permitting the possibility of interbreeding and loss of biodiversity.
If both of the above arguments are not convincing enough to make consumers think twice, consider the potential health effects of eating GMOs. Alexa Small, a member of Peterborough’s Food Not Bombs, warns that “sometimes human selected organisms aren’t chosen for our best interests, but for short-term economic gain.” Since AquaBounty AquaAdvantage salmon will be the first ever genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption, no long-term studies have been done investigating the possible future health effects of eating this hormone-enhanced fish on a regular basis. There is also limited data available in the FDA risk assessment report. Most disturbingly, there is virtually no mention of the 2009 infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAV) outbreak that occurred at an experimental facility in Canada. Buyers should be cautious of eating GMOs because in the past, gene insertion into plants has led to mutations, as well as unpredicted changes in gene expression. The Organic Consumers Association states that, “the gene [after insertion] is often rearranged. It may transfer from the food into our body’s cells or into the DNA of bacteria inside us, and the GM protein produced by the gene may have unintended properties or effects.” Ultimately, there is no way of knowing to what degree these aftereffects may be harmful.
Myles Connor, a Food Not Bombs volunteer, pointed out, “The science says GM stuff can be safe and can do some amazing things [but] economics dictate that the GM sector will do only what makes the most money, and that tends to be a disastrous and saddening route.”
The public has been given until February 25, 2013 to voice its opinion on the FDA’s anticipated approval of genetically engineered salmon, or as critics are apprehensively calling it, “Frankenfish.”