The FDA is Reviewing a Genetically Altered ‘Super-Salmon,’ and Critics Aren’t Fishing for Compliments
"I wish the government would remember why we’re so close to a world without salmon,” Winnemem Wintu Tribal Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco wrote in the California Progress Report. “They built dams that destroyed the spawning grounds, dug mines that polluted the rivers and then acted surprised when the salmon disappeared. They’ve since been trying to replace the salmon they’ve destroyed with coyote-like machinations”—a reference to a traditional Winnemem tale about a coyote’s disastrous attempt at playing Creator—“trapping the salmon and hauling them by truck around the dams, building factory-like hatcheries and now the unholy conception of frankenfish.”
By “frankenfish,” she is referring to a genetically engineered super-salmon, the first biotech animal for human consumption being reviewed by the Federal Drug Administration. Called AquAdvantage by its Boston-based maker, AquaBounty Technologies, the fish was created from a fertilized egg of the North Atlantic salmon. This process is far different from cloning—scientists extract the growth hormone from the chinook, or king, salmon and a gene from the bottom-dwelling, eel-like ocean pout fish—a combination that causes the salmon to grow year-round, while wild salmon only grow in the warmer months. The AquAdvantage salmon hits the eight-pound market weight in only 18 months rather than the typical 36, and consumes less food over its lifetime, compared to a wild North Atlantic Salmon.
If it gets FDA approval, AquaBounty says it could be in grocery stores and restaurants nationwide by 2012. Which is good news for AquaBounty, but a recent Washington Post poll found that 58 percent of Americans think the salmon should not be approved for human consumption, according to results released on Jan. 14. In September, after the FDA announced that the bioengineered salmon is safe to eat, an overwhelming 78 percent told a Post poll that they were “too concerned about potential health and environmental risks” to buy it, reported Food Safety News. Adding to that tidal wave of disapproval, 11 U.S. Senators, 29 members of the House of Representatives and 53 environmental groups and food businesses oppose AquAdvantage, reported National Geographic.
Ronald A. Stotish, chief executive officer of AquaBounty, insists AquAdvantage is safe, and FDA officials largely agree, saying they found no relevant differences between the frankenfish and salmon, and no reason to think there are any dangers associated to eating it.
Critics, however, caution that the health risks to humans are unknown. AquaBounty and the FDA measured whether the super-salmon is healthy to eat using a blender, reported Slate.com—homogenizing fillet samples into liquid. Analyzing the resultant fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral contents, the tests revealed that only the vitamin B6 content was drastically differed—though not enough to raise concerns. Whether the hybrid fish could cause allergies is unknown. Critics also chastised the FDA for relying on studies performed by AquaBounty or its contractors, which used small samples of fish—one study used only six fish, reported National Geographic.
The consultants the FDA assembled to evaluate the super-salmon has also raised questions. Because the FDA has labeled AquAdvantage a “New Animal Drug,” the agency gathered a veterinary medical advisory committee to do the evaluation. “With all due respect, we don’t believe a veterinary advisory committee is the appropriate place to discuss these food safety issues,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, told the FDA panel. Critics also question the FDA’s narrowly focused review process, which concentrates on the health implications of human consumption. “The FDA is using a process to determine whether vitamins are safe for human consumption,” said Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited. “It’s not adequate to determine if this will pose harm to the environment or to wild salmon stocks.”
On top of health concerns, critics warn that the greatest threat is an accidental release into the wild. They fear the modified salmon will intermingle with endangered wild salmon populations, exhausting their food sources, causing overcrowding and depleting wild salmon populations. AquaBounty says there is no risk of escape—their super-salmon will spend their entire lives confined in freshwater pools, an expensive alternative to raising them in the ocean. Most farmed salmon begin their lives in freshwater before transferring to open-net pens in the ocean, but this method has resulted in escapes, wreaking havoc on wild ecosystems, reported Food Safety News. AquaBounty has one more safety feature: It says its fish eggs are predisposed to die in the cold, salty waters surrounding Prince Edward Island, Canada, where the modified eggs will be raised at a secure hatchery on land, according to Trout Unlimited, The fry will be transported to Panama and raised at an undisclosed location at a high altitude, protected by “multiple barriers,” according to Trout Unlimited. In the event of an escape into waters bordering Panama, the modified fish will likely die from too high temperatures, reported Trout Unlimited. AquaBounty also claims that its fish are sterile, and thus, unable to interbreed. That said, the genetic manipulation techniques the company uses leave room for error. According to the AquAdvantage Salmon Environmental Assessment available at FDA.org, AquaBounty’s batches of fish include a range of 98.9 percent to 100 percent sterile fish. That means that if the company produces one million fish, and 98.9 percent of them are not sterile, approximately 11,000 fish will be fertile.
In September 2010, the FDA requested more time to deliberate on approval of the salmon, especially on labeling issues. Current FDA regulations require engineered foods to be labeled as such only if the food is substantially different from the usual version. Since AquaBounty’s modified salmon is essentially the same as Atlantic salmon, consumers could not tell by packaging alone whether they were eating it under current regulations. In an interview with NPR, Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist and the director of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said not having a label that tells consumers their salmon is genetically modified is unlawful. When asked whether she would eat the super-salmon, she replied, “My concern is, I’m not going to have a choice.”
Washington, D.C.–based chef, writer and ocean advocate Barton Seaver likewise disapproves of the super-salmon being sold without special labeling. “I’m not inherently against new technology,” he told National Geographic in October 2010. “But I’m inherently against a lack of transparency. Saying that the American consumer doesn’t need to know this information is simply wrong.”
While genetically engineered crops have become mainstream, the government has yet to approve the consumption of modified animals. This salmon could be the first genetically engineered animal sold for human consumption. “For future applications out there, the sky’s the limit,” said Dr. David Edwards, director of animal biotechnology at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, to AOL News. “If you can imagine it, scientists can try to do it.”
European nations have been cautious about engineered foods. Ruediger Rosenthal, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth Germany, doubts the modified fish will hit shelves across the Atlantic, as many Europeans are extremely skeptical of genetically modified foods, reported AOL News.
Proponents of genetically engineered salmon argue the fish will be safe and accessible to everyone because of its lower price. Seaver dismisses this argument, citing the underuse of pink salmon from Alaska, which often ends up in cans of cat food, cosmetics and bio-fuels. “But it’s delicious fish,” Seaver said, noting that 80 percent of the fish caught in Alaska are pink salmon. “I think it tastes better than farmed salmon—instead of seeing it go into cat food, let’s see it go into human food. Sustainable wild food exists.”
If AquaBounty’s salmon is approved, will consumers eat it? Some people don’t like the taste of even farmed salmon. The Namgis and Ahousaht peoples claim farmed salmon makes them sick and that it smells, looks and tastes different from wild salmon. Maybe their preference runs deeper. By choosing to eat only wild salmon, Dorothee Schreiber argued in the summer 2002 edition of The American Indian Quarterly that First Nations peoples are utilizing salmon as a symbol of cultural resistance, describing farmed salmon as a “colonized way of life” and wild salmon as “emblematic of a First Nations way of life.”
Seaver told National Geographic he doesn’t serve farm-raised salmon in his restaurants, “because it doesn’t taste any good.” He said that he would serve frozen, processed products from Alaska before serving super-salmon. “Wild Alaskan salmon is... delicious; it’s everything you would want it to be.”
Others propose fish substitution before toying with DNA. “Here’s an idea: Rather than spend $50 million a pop [on] genetically engineering the highly popular endangered species, how about getting some marketing whiz to rebrand Arctic char as, I don’t know, Arctic salmon?” Tom Laskawy, a writer and a media and technology consultant, proposed in Grist.org, an online environmental news journal, referencing the successful rebranding of the “homely Patagonian toothfish,” as Chilean sea bass.
Some critics point out that the FDA is overlooking one more important issue: the cultural significance of salmon to indigenous peoples. Natives generally oppose the genetic engineering of animals as they see this technology threatening the wild species and their environments. For traditional salmon-eating tribes, a bigger question lies at the heart of the engineered salmon issue. Why play Creator before listening to the thoughts of native people, who have valued wild salmon for centuries and associate it with their cultural identity? The Winnemem Wintu Tribe, for instance, offers a common-sense solution to salmon shortages in some areas—they want to restore their traditional salmon run, destroyed when the government-funded Shasta Dam was built on the Sacramento River during World War II. The dam caused flooding to their villages along the McCloud River, which runs east of and parallel to the Sacramento River, and blocked salmon from returning. The Winnemem Wintu Tribe found a logical solution by collaborating with the Maori tribe in New Zealand, to whom the Winnemem lent hatchery eggs in the 19th century, helping the Maoris establish a stable fishery, which thrives to this day. Now the Winnemem want to bring the salmon home, from New Zealand back to the McCloud River. They hope to rear the salmon in an open-air hatchery and then, by using a natural creek, to move migrating salmon around the dam.
“Before the dam, the Winnemem spent our entire existence observing the salmon and passing this knowledge down through our stories,” Chief Caleen Sisk-Franco wrote in the California Progress Report. “Shouldn’t thousands of years of direct observation be more respected than AquaBounty’s farcical studies?”