This column was updated at noon.
By now, you’ve probably heard that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the first-ever genetically engineered animal for human consumption. It’s an Atlantic salmon modified for fast growth with genes from two other edible fish, and it has been — and will undoubtedly continue to be — a lightning rod for all the issues associated with genetically modified foods. There’s safety, there’s escape into the environment and there’s labeling: a trifecta of discord. The fish’s lengthy approval process — the salmon’s developer, AquaBounty Technologies, first approached the FDA 20 years ago — indicates just how intense that discord has been.
So, safety first. Groups such as Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch have expressed concern about both safety and allergenicity, with Consumers Union citing small sample sizes and “inadequate analysis.” It’s unlikely that the FDA assessment will put their minds at ease, since the final decision is largely consistent with preliminary findings from 2010, when the agency determined that food from the GE salmon is as safe as, and no more allergenic than, food from any other Atlantic salmon, and concluded there is “reasonable certainty of no harm.” (Although “genetically engineered” is the term the FDA uses, this salmon is commonly referred to as a genetically modified organism, or GMO.)
The larger issue is the possibility of escape, important because escapees could outcompete or interbreed with native fish. AquaBounty says it has several layers of safeguards to prevent that: The fish are raised on land, in tanks, and the fish grown for food (as opposed to breeding) are all females, and sterile. The FDA calls the possibility of the salmon’s escape “highly unlikely,” and the possibility of their breeding in the wild commensurately unlikely. Environmental conditions around the company’s Canadian and Panamanian facilities, the agency found, make it unlikely that any escapees could thrive and establish a viable population. (The FDA approval is for only those two facilities. Any new installations will require a new environmental assessment and separate approval.)
Consumers Union, again responding to preliminary FDA findings that today’s announcement confirmed, says the agency’s determination that escape is a remote possibility was built on “inadequate science and unfounded assumptions” and expresses concern that the sterilization process isn’t 100 percent successful. (That’s true; the FDA requires that the rate be at least 95 percent, and AquaBounty chief executive Ron Stotish says that rates, in practice, are generally over 99 percent.)
A Canadian governmental risk assessment issued in 2013 also looked at both safety and escapes and described the risk to human health as “low” and the risk to the Canadian environment as “negligible.”
On both of those issues, there will always be some doubt. Safety can’t be proved (we can only infer it from absence of harm so far), and any containment system can fail. So the questions aren’t “Is it safe?” and “Could they escape?” The question is whether the risk in those two areas is outweighed by the benefits.
So let’s talk about the benefits. According to AquaBounty, the advantages are that the fish reaches market weight in about half the time taken by conventional salmon and requires 25 percent less feed to get there. If that’s true (and there’s no reason to suppose it isn’t), what we have here, finally, is a GMO that can benefit people and planet — unlike the other genetically engineered foods approved for use in the United States, which chiefly benefit farmers. Growing healthful fish in less time, with less feed, is a win for humans (in the form of more affordable salmon) and environment (in the form of reduced feed requirements and less pressure on forage fish stocks).
I do have one concern about whether those benefits will play out, but it’s related to neither safety nor the potential for escape. It’s about raising fish in tanks. Although tanks eliminate the potential for ocean pollution and the spread of disease to wild fish, and virtually eliminate the problem of escapees, they require both water and energy. Does that increase in resources counterbalance the decrease that comes from faster growth and better feed conversion? AquaBounty’s Stotish says that energy requirements vary widely by location and that the Panamanian location is very resource-efficient, as the water is gravity-fed and doesn’t need cooling. Although he hasn’t done the calculation in greenhouse gases, he has done it in money, a reasonable proxy. “We have a lower cost per kilo than net pen production,” he says.
That leaves the third issue: labeling. The United States, unlike many other countries, has no requirement that genetically modified food be labeled as such, and the salmon is no exception. When the fish is introduced, Stotish says, it probably will not be identified as genetically engineered — a decision I think is unfortunate. “When you’re the first and only, labeling is a dangerous decision,” he says. “We’d like to label it as a premium product, but we’ll probably introduce it as ‘Atlantic salmon.’ ”
Because there is so much fear and so many misconceptions about genetically engineered food, I feel his pain. But I’d ask him to suck it up and put the label on it. One of the reasons GMOs became such a brouhaha is that consumers feel the technology was foisted, in secret, on an unsuspecting public.
The company has a limited capacity to grow fish, so consumers won’t be seeing the salmon on store shelves right away. Stotish estimates that it’ll be two years before production levels are high enough to get a regular supply to market, and I think that gives AquaBounty plenty of time to change its mind about labeling. If the fish has all the advantages the company claims it does, say it loud. And let everyone — pro and con — vote with their wallets.
Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel.