FDA Approval For Genetically Modified Salmon That Grow Super Fast

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One particular genetically modified salmon is on the verge of successfully navigating the treacherous regulatory waters of the FDA. The agency just issued a draft environmental assessment of the genetically engineered salmon in which they asserted that the salmon “would not have a significant impact on the US environment.” The agency also concluded the salmon to be “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.” If all goes as expected, the salmon could be available for consumers by late next year.

The genetically modified salmon are produced by AquaBounty Technologies, based in Maynard, Massachusetts. Their AquAdvantage salmon are Atlantic salmon that combine a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and a control gene from an eel-like creature called the ocean pout that cranks out the growth hormone. The result is that the AquAdvantage salmon grow faster, cutting the time to reach market weight by about half – 18 months compared instead of three years required by normal salmon. Despite the accelerated growth rate, the resultant salmon don’t grow to be any larger than their wild counterparts.

AquaBounty Technologies have sought FDA approval for about 17 years. The FDA had previously determined that the salmon were safe to eat but had yet to rule on whether or not they were safe for the environment. The current draft assessment will be posted on the FDA website for the next 60 days over which time the public is invited to voice concerns over the salmon. Approval is expected to follow the open comment period.

The FDA decision has infuriated some environmental and consumer groups. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Food Safety that opposes farm biotechnology, calls the agency’s decision “premature and misguided.” He said in a statement that “the G.E. salmon has no socially redeeming value. It’s bad for the consumer, bad for the salmon industry and bad for the environment.” The group’s statement goes on to say that the FDA’s decision ignores the recommendations of more than 40 members of Congress for more rigorous reviews of the environmental and health effects of the salmon and near 400,000 comments from the public urging the FDA to reject the application.

A major concern among opponents is the risk that the AquAdvantage salmon could escape into the wild and outcompete normal salmon for food or mates. But the multiple layers of protection against this scenario has led the FDA to call the risk “extremely remote.”

A combination of proteins taken from the Chinook salmon and the ocean pout cause it to grow twice as fast as wild salmon. The abnormal growth rate has raised concerns among consumer groups.

First, the salmon would be reared inside inland tanks in Panama that are equipped with multiple barriers to prevent escape. And even if some salmon do manage to pass the barriers the surrounding Panamanian waters would be too warm or salty for the Atlantic fish to survive (eggs are taken from plants on Prince Edward Island, Canada). Lastly, the AquAdvantage salmon will be sterilized and unable to breed, although the sterilization procedure is acknowledged to not be foolproof.

AquaBounty rejects the environmental risk argument and assert that the accelerated growth of their fish and the shortened time to market actually decrease their environmental impact by enabling them to be grown in inland tanks instead of ocean pens that can wear on their ocean surroundings.

It’s important to point out that the FDA only assessed how the salmon might affect surrounding environs in the US, but not in Panama or Canada.

In addition to environmental concerns, opponents are concerned that the FDA's previous assessment that the AquAdvantage salmon are safe to eat was not thorough enough.

The FDA will take some time, perhaps a few months, to consider comments from consumers before making a final decision. If they maintain their current stance that the salmon are safe an additional approval would then allow the salmon to be sold in the US. Ronald Stotish, AquaBounty’s chief executive, told the New York Times that if the fish are approved next year the genetically modified fish could reach American dinner tables by late 2013. Initial supplies would be limited given that the Panama farm is currently the only one growing the fish. But AquaBounty plans on selling the modified eggs to other fish farms to boost their salmon supply.

The FDA decision is a major victory for genetically modified foods. If the fish do end up on dinner plates across the US – and it certainly appears as though they will – the AquAdvantage salmon could pave the way for genetically modified foods of all kinds. No doubt we are in for a prolonged battle between opposition groups and companies like AquaBounty working to be major players in a potentially extremely profitable market. The battle with play out on our dinner plates as the foods are shown to be safe for us or not, and at the fish farms and crop fields as they are shown to be safe for the environment or not. It’ll be a grand experiment with implications for the future of our food, and with heavily vested interests on all sides.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 18 Responses

  • Beemac January 2, 2013 on 1:15 pm

    17 years!? With this kind of drag on innovation, it’s going to take longer for the Singularity and it won’t be done in the USA. Oh, and the big O held up the approval for the election

  • pbvtog January 2, 2013 on 5:31 pm

    Boycott GMO foods. But know that until we regain our freedom, home gardens and pricy organic foods will continue to compromise our priorities.

  • Scribe January 3, 2013 on 1:42 am

    More genetically modified food, great…

    I foresee issues with ecosystems: there’s likely some long-term reason that salmon don’t grow super fast, and it probably has to do with population crashes and the viability of the species.

    • Levi Dettwyler Scribe January 14, 2013 on 10:05 pm

      They don’t grow up fast because they don’t need to. The evolution of salmon did not favor it being a food source. There’s no evolutionary reason for it to grow faster, so it’s not surprising that they don’t.

      • charlotte_wishart Levi Dettwyler September 4, 2014 on 7:55 pm

        The salmon are not going to be released into the wild – their faster growing capabilities are exclusively for human benefit.
        While you are correct in saying that they have not evolved to grow bigger and that there has been no reason to, it is not right to pin this as a reason against the production of super salmon.
        Again, the faster growth is because of the increasing demands for salmon within the consumer market.
        This project is a possible solution to overfishing which, in the long run, will benefit the environment.

  • Dave K January 3, 2013 on 1:51 am

    I’ll believe that Frankenfish are safe when I see the first lady feed them to her family rather than the organic foods that they eat. Perhaps someone should show FDA personnel eating them at their next pot luck. Until I see both of those things happen I will avoid any salmon that could possibly be genetically modified.

  • Blake Hall January 3, 2013 on 11:28 am

    ^^ These comments. I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but who’s the readership for this site? The Amish?
    Did you not read the article, or just not the part about multiple layers of protection? That aside, evolution is not an intelligent force–blindly assuming there is some higher reason salmon take 3 years to mature instead of 1.8 is fallacious.
    @Dave K,
    Sexist assumption aside, what a presidential family and members of a regulatory agency eat has nothing to do with the objective safety of a food. I suppose you want every member of the FDA to be on tens of thousands of drugs right now as well?

    • Craig J. Townsend Blake Hall January 4, 2013 on 7:01 pm

      The sad thing is that you find linear thinkers and Malthusians even on the Singularity sites as well as the TED.com. That the Zeitgeisters took up Peter Diamandis’ Book Abundance was great, that they ignored its implications for their static, steady state, economic model at full equilibrium was par for the course. A failed religion needs all of the brainless adherents it can to keep it alive one more dreary decade. You can’t read Kurzweil, Diamandis, Ridley, Kelly et al and not realize that the old linear ideology is as dead as a door nail.

    • Geo Meek Blake Hall January 7, 2013 on 12:25 am

      Blake Hall you may feel safe the way things are going but most people know something is vary wrong with the Gov. and the Corp’s running it….

  • dobermanmacleod January 3, 2013 on 2:32 pm

    It seems like I am in the minority, but I think this specific GMO animal is GREAT because it will make farmed salmon as cheap as chicken is now in the supermarket. The problem with all these knee-jerk anti-GMOers is that all GM organisms and projects aren’t created equally. For instance, Golden Rice that saves tens of thousands of kids a year from going blind. Shame on you GreenPeace for opposing Golden Rice – that is a special sin that tarnishes all of your good works.

    • Ver Greeneyes dobermanmacleod January 3, 2013 on 4:26 pm

      Exactly. I certainly think we should be careful with GM because it’s not like we understand DNA as well as C++, and breeding every salmon from a single genome can make it much easier for something to infect the whole population. So make sure we perform lots of independent studies and all of this happens in public for all the experts to scrutinize. But you can’t just assume that these projects are bad a priori, and doing so means you’re also ignoring all the potential benefits. There’s nothing inherently better about natural foods! If anything they’re more likely to have bad side effects on us because we haven’t studied them as closely or monitored their development. The only reason they’re potentially safer is that we have many years of experience eating them.

    • Mia Blackwood dobermanmacleod January 6, 2013 on 5:58 pm

      Sure they might save tens of thousands of kids but it won’t take long for them to get auto-immune disorders from those GMO foods either.

      • ChefDom Ca Mia Blackwood January 8, 2013 on 3:57 pm

        Actually, as a chef, the rate of growth affects the taste of the meat, collagen and elastin development in beef for example.

        You can clearly taste and feel the difference between farm and natural salmon, both in firmness of flesh and lack of flavour. And colour for that matter.

        Add to the fact that fish taste of what they eat, the growth cycle will diminish the taste. A good example would be aging of champagne, sure you can do it faster, but not with same results.

        So gene altering effects aside, it will be an inferior product, just like farm raised salmon before it. Or homone assisted chicken, bland and tasteless.

        For those who argue it will feed more people, it won’t, we have enough food, we just manage it poorly. Look up monsanto, they are not helping people, gmo has always been about profit. Not that I am opposed to profit at all, but monsanto has worked hard to block laws allowing gmo labeling on foods. Why? because I for one would not buy it.

        Organic farms are very productive, when done right, and gmo foods are inferior they lack the millions of years of testing done by nature, to establish diversity, which is critical when disease hits. Think irish potatoe famine, not enough diversity.

        We are just too arrogant, and I did study biology, so this in not just my two cents, but the flip side of the coin rarely discussed.

        We simply have no way of knowing the long term sideeffects, or the effect on the environement, and people. Nature is the biggest laboratory we know, and most cures come from isolated compounds in plants.

        Just a thought.

  • SA23 January 13, 2013 on 9:36 pm

    I work in a lab that genetically modifies plants, bacteria and viruses.

    GMO is food cannot be called safe; it has not been adequately tested.

    Biology is a complex system; GMO “safety” is an experiment on the populace.

    The FDA is a shill for Monsanto.

    Here is some real science by one of the best in the business:


  • ionakathryn January 20, 2013 on 12:49 pm

    Putting a trademark on food/animals doesn’t sit right with me. There is something wrong here…

  • Steve Robinson January 27, 2013 on 10:34 am

    And what about the feed? The primary source is forage fish, which are absolutely essential in the wild environment, but are at risk, and it has been estimated that it takes three pounds of forage fish (smelt, anchovies, etc.) to raise one pound of farm-raised salmon. When you manage to wipe out the forage fish stocks, thus interrupting the natural ecosystem, will you then feed the farm-raised salmon hay??? The fact is that there is ultimately no supportable rationale for raising Atlantic salmon in the Pacific region. The answer to good salmon management is balanced ecosystem management, and far better focus on habitat.