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Natural Foods Merchandiser

GM Salmon Spawns Fierce Debate

Introducing genetically modified salmon to the U.S. market likely will trigger more environmental questions than concerns about food safety, a centrist think tank concluded.

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology researchers investigated everything that may go wrong if GM salmon hits fish hatcheries and grocery stores, and concluded GM fish should stay out of the food stream until the Food and Drug Administration addresses their potential threat to the wild species. Pew released its conclusions in a report, "Future Fish: Issues in Science and Regulation of Transgenic Fish."

The Pew report echoes one released last fall by the National Research Council's Committee on Defining Science-Based Concerns Associated with the Products of Animal Biotechnology.

The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Initiative's activities are limited to raising questions about public health matters. Understanding this is important because the report is essentially a collection of worst-case scenarios. The report looked at issues of government oversight, environmental impact and food safety.

"We looked at the risks associated with this salmon, and they are mainly environmental," said DJ Nordquist, Pew's communications director.

In December, the state of Washington banned the cultivation of genetically modified fish. Visitors to say it's a good thing:

  • 77 percent agree with the ban

  • 73 percent say GM fish should not be sold in supermarkets

  • 71 percent say they would not eat GM fish
But Pew is not suggesting that the fish is safe. The safety question must be answered by the Food and Drug Administration, which is in the review process with Aqua Bounty Farms. Based in Waltham, Mass., Aqua Bounty is the first company to make a commercial enterprise of growing genetically altered salmon and does not expect to complete its application until the end of spring. This means the FDA likely will not rule on the fish's safety until December.

This leaves plenty of time for groups worried about GM salmon's safety to voice their concern. Sacramento, Calif.-based Center for Food Safety, for one, has called for a ban on genetically altered salmon, citing potential problems with allergens and toxins.

But with the FDA still reviewing potential impacts of GM salmon on human health, the brunt of scrutiny is bound to fall on the fish's environmental impact. Bred in special pens in the ocean, GM salmon could routinely escape into the wild. Since the GM salmon is bred to grow faster, it will reach maturity more quickly than its wild rivals and potentially could demonstrate predatory behavior, the report said.

Although GM salmon are sterile and female, they are still living organisms that are genetically programmed to survive and procreate. Researchers worry about impacts ranging from unplanned procreation to a diminishing stock of wild salmon if natural male salmon attempt to breed with infertile GM females.

Solutions to this problem are tough to derive, said Eric Hallerman, an associate professor in the department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg and an expert in fish genetics. Hallerman is a member of the NRC committee that reviewed the literature on GM animals for the group's fall report.

Experiments are almost impossible to set up, because it is impossible to recreate all environmental factors accurately. "Aqua Bounty could be required to somehow set up this hatchery on land and still make it into a business," Hallerman said.

Aqua Bounty executives said only half a percent of domesticated fish escaping into the wild survive, and GM salmon are not expected to fare differently. "They basically learn from the day they are hatched to swim around in circles and wait till the dinner bell rings," said Joseph McGonigle, Aqua Bounty's vice president of business development and former executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

McGonigle said the alarm over transgenic fish is similar to the concerns that surrounded fish farming when pens were first built in the open sea 30 years ago. He said though the concept was controversial, it ultimately helped increase the popularity of fish.

Introducing farm-raised salmon triggered a 50 percent cost reduction, dragging retail price per pound down to $2.50 from $5 in the early 1990s. Cost savings realized from the faster growth cycle of transgenic salmon will likely drop the price per pound to $1.25, making it as affordable as ground beef, he said.

Since Aqua Bounty is the first company to sell a GM animal for human consumption, it hopes to educate consumers about the benefits of genetic engineering by clearly marking its fish with a distinct label that would separate it from natural fish.

Max Smetannikov is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 20, 22

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