FDA Approves Genetically Engineered Salmon

After two decades of scientific review, the FDA today approved the AquaBounty petition for its genetically engineered salmon saying “. . . AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.”.

Today’s finding is, at once, inconsequential and monumental.

Because the projected production of the engineered salmon will be a couple hundred tonnes per year on a global market of roughly 1.5 million tonnes, the AquaBounty salmon won’t nudge the needle of relevance.  But, as the first ever transgenic animal approved for human consumption in the U.S., AquaBounty is larger than the volume of salmon it produces.

In many venues, three issues regularly surface -safety, nutrition and the environment.

For me, twenty years of review by the FDA addresses the issues of safety and nutrition so I’m going to set them aside.

There may, however, still be an environmental question on the table.  Namely, can AquaBounty fish breed with wild populations so as to alter them fundamentally?

AquaBounty has taken two precautions to manage this risk.  The first is that their salmon will be grown in land-based tanks, not the ocean. Precautions have been developed to make escape from the pens unlikely.  But, while it may be unlikely, it is not improbable that some fish will escape.

Further relevant is that the AquaBounty business model is to produce eggs in Canada and sell them to farmers in Panama.  In short, intentions notwithstanding, they lose control over the eggs they produce and cannot impose the precautions developed.

The second precaution is a breeding technique that results in the females being triploid, i.e. they have three sets of chromosomes rather than the normal two.  This makes them sterile. AquaBounty females are 98.9% sterile-unquestionably high but not complete.

Regarding the environmental risk, the question seemingly is not whether fertile genetically engineered salmon will be released into the ocean but, rather, when and how many.

How do we choose when to embrace and when to avoid risk?  It’s a balancing act.  Accepting a risk that is far offset by reward is prudent.  If you seek, but can’t find, a reward commensurate with the risk, it’s time to walk away.

With today’s FDA ruling I see the potential for environmental risk that isn’t offset by an improvement in our food system.  The case hasn’t yet been made for me. I’d love to hear what you think.