The future of food.

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Gene-Altered Salmon for Everyone

James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View. He was Wall Street news team leader at Bloomberg News and senior editor for Bloomberg Markets magazine. He previously reported on banking for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer.
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Well, that was predictable. Almost as soon as the Food and Drug Administration last week approved production of genetically modified salmon, the scaremongering about "Frankenfish" and the threats of litigation began. 

Some of the groups vowing to file lawsuits to prevent the salmon from ever reaching consumers -- the Center for Food Safety, for example, and the Nova Scotia-based Ecology Action Centre -- usually emphasize their devotion to scientific evidence on issues such as climate change. In this case, the evidence, after almost 20 years of study and research, shows that salmon with genes altered to speed growth aren't in any significant way different from wild or standard farm-raised salmon.

Unfortunately, the alarms about GM fish have prompted food retailers such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Kroger and Safeway to say they won't sell it, citing objections from customers. Nevermind that the shelves of some grocery chains that have made this pledge are already stocked with products containing genetically modified ingredients.

To create the GM salmon, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies Inc. inserted a growth gene from a chinook salmon, the largest type of Pacific salmon, into Atlantic salmon, the main species raised for human consumption. To ensure that the chinook growth gene is permanently switched on rather than just seasonally, AquaBounty inserted another gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout.

AquaBounty says this alteration makes its salmon 25 percent more efficient than standard Atlantic salmon at converting feed into meat.

The two big objections raised by opponents to what the company calls AquAdvantage Salmon is that it will cause health problems for humans such as allergies, or escape and degrade wild salmon populations. The FDA said both concerns were unfounded.

First, because of guidelines adopted a few years ago, the FDA was required to review the salmon as if it were a new animal drug. On that count, the agency concluded that "AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from non-GE Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption."

The doubters' response is that the FDA can't be trusted because it's in cahoots with the food and drug industry.

As for the risk of fish escaping and interbreeding with wild fish or out-competing them, the genetically engineered salmon won't be raised in floating pens in coastal areas. Farmed salmon can and do escape into the wild from these enclosures, which also can be a source of pollution and disease.

Instead, the GM fish will be raised in two separate land-based systems, one in Panama and one in Prince Edward Island, Canada. The Canadian plant, which will produce eggs and hatchlings, will be indoors, with filters to trap any loose eggs or small fish. While outdoors, the Panama facility, where the fish will be raised to maturity, will have the same safeguards and is located in an area where salmon can't survive in the wild. Furthermore, all the fish will be sterile.

Because the FDA didn't find any difference between genetically altered salmon and other salmon, it doesn't require retailers to label the fish. Instead, the agency is leaving labeling up to individual retailers. If consumers want to avoid the genetically modified salmon, if it makes it to market, the FDA said they can buy fish labeled as caught in the wild.

Better still, as Tamar Haspel, writing in the Washington Post, put it, if AquaBounty is so certain of the merits of its fish, it should have no qualms about labeling:

[P]ut a label on it. One of the reasons GMOs became such a brouhaha is that consumers feel the technology was foisted, in secret, on an unsuspecting public.

One thing that has been overlooked in all this: just how important aquaculture is and will be as the oceans are more heavily overfished amid population growth, advancing fishing technology, and rising incomes and demand. The World Bank estimates that as much as two-thirds of the seafood people consume will be raised on farms by 2030. And what do fish in farm pens eat? A lot of sardines, herring and other so-called forage fish, which are at risk of being over-harvested.

Aquaculture will inevitably mean finding fish to farm that are more efficient at turning food into meat. Researchers are already looking at ways to genetically modify other types of fish, such as trout and tilapia, to grow faster and more efficiently. AquaBounty's salmon may not be to everyone's liking. No one has to eat it. But it probably represents the future of seafood.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net