Frankenfish -- genetically modified salmon -- take food and ecology to a new level

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears close to approving the 'frankenfish' salmon. That raises all sorts of questions.

Today, the “frankenfish” – a genetically modified salmon. Tomorrow, a “frankenpig”?

Probably. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears likely to approve genetically altered Atlantic salmon for human consumption. The salmon’s added genes allow it to grow to market size in half the time of wild salmon. Meanwhile, in Canada, a pig is being engineered to produce less harmful phosphorus waste.

If the FDA approves of the fish, it will mark the first time a genetically manipulated animal would be allowed for human consumption in the United States.

There’s a lot to digest in that last sentence, including the moral aspects of changing the natural DNA of animals. Cloning is controversial enough; that science reproduces exact copies of animals. Genetic modification, or GM, goes a step further and changes the characteristics of a plant or animal.

Warnings about this “Frankenstein” trend fall generally into two categories: food safety and impact on the environment. In the case of the GM salmon, critics worry that the fish could include dangerous allergens. They also worry about the possibility of escape into the greater environment, where the GM salmon would compete with endangered wild salmon for food.

The FDA says there are no relevant differences in biology between GM salmon and the conventional kind for human consumption. In a meeting Monday, it said the GM fish shouldn’t cause any additional allergies and that there is little chance they could escape. But an FDA advisory panel cast some doubt on whether there was enough evidence to affirm both those conclusions with surety.

Documentation by the company that wants to introduce the new salmon, AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts, says the fish would be produced inland, with overlapping security layers to prevent them from spreading. One of those layers is the makeup of the fish themselves. They would be female and sterile.

The US and other countries are well along the path to genetically altered food. Biotech crops – altered soybean, feed corn, cotton – are spreading rapidly around the world. In the US, about 75 percent of soybeans are genetically modified. China is working on a strain of rice that’s more nutritious.

GM crops resist insects and disease and produce higher yields for farmers. In a hungry world that has a growing population, this new generation of crops promises to feed more people. GM animals could offer similar benefits – cattle resistant to mad cow disease, and in the case of the GM salmon, a plentiful food source at a time when wild fish stocks are dwindling.

And yet, the most innocent of motives can produce the most unintended of consequences. Invasive species – zebra mussels, Asian carp, snakehead fish – endanger the health of America’s waters. Even AquaBounty acknowledges that “fish and insects are among the groups of organisms with a high degree of mobility and significant capacity to escape captivity and become feral.”

On the scientific level, this new type of food needs to be studied and very closely monitored before and after approval. The moral question is something. If the US proceeds with genetically altered animals, that argues for labeling that would allow individuals to make their own choice about such foods. For some, it’s not merely a question of safety.

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