Completing a project more than 25 years in the making, about five tons of genetically engineered salmon were sold to customers in Canada last year. The fish, called AquAdvantage, was developed by Massachusetts-based company AquaBounty, which announced the news on August 4. The company's chief executive would not disclose to Nature News who had purchased it. Environmentalists soon sounded the alarm that consumers had become unwitting Canadian "guinea pigs" who were sold unlabeled and untrackable genetically modified food.
The controversy is probably wearingly familiar for AquaBounty. The Food and Drug Administration approved the engineered salmon for sale in the United States in 2015—there's a whole complicated backstory about why the FDA regulates genetically modified animals—but Congress responded with overlapping requirements that GM fish be labeled for consumers.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican, has pushed for the FDA to ban GM or "transgenic" fish until it can figure out a way to let people know what they're buying. Murkowski also introduced a bill requiring the AquAdvantage salmon be labeled as "genetically engineered"—she's previously questioned whether the animal should even be called fish, preferring "Frankenfish" or "fake fish." (Murkowski, for her part, also represents a state that is the world's largest producer of wild salmon.) Advocacy groups have also helped keep the salmon out of US supermarkets. Canadian authorities, meanwhile, deemed the salmon as safe as its conventional counterparts and approved it for sale, with no labeling required.
Why so much controversy around this fish? It's an Atlantic salmon that's been given a growth-hormone gene from Chinook salmon, plus genetic regulatory elements from another species, the ocean pout. If you're not a fish aficionado, that means the AquAdvantage grows rapidly—four to six times faster than conventional Atlantic salmon in their early life. But these modifications also allow the salmon to to produce a continuous low level of growth hormone, Nature News reports. Eric Hallerman, an expert in fisheries and fish genetics at Virginia Tech University, told the Washington Post that the modifications shorten production time, getting the salmon to market twice as fast, in a year and a half versus three. It also means that the salmon, raised in fish farms, require less feed.
Those benefits come from genetic tinkering, which is exactly what makes activists so uneasy; even as regulators declare GMOs safe, they're labeled as "Frankenfood." Some worry that the GM fish could escape and mate with the wild fish population but AquaBounty says its fish are all female, sterilized, and are kept in their tanks with multiple barriers and filters.
But while AquAdvantage salmon remains in a regulatory limbo in the US for now, the company plans to be selling it here by 2019—assuming that who. And while it may be the first transgenic animal to make its way through the regulatory gauntlet, it likely won't be the last. Hallerman said scientists have already developed disease-resistant livestock and cows and goats that produce nutritive compounds in their milk.
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