Transgenic technology is a new high-tech tool developed by scientists to increase productivity and profitability of commercial food production, while at the same time increasing sustainability of food resources. Atlantic salmon is one example of such a nutritious limited food source. Our oceans cannot keep up with consumer demands for fish, a commodity that is not only highly sought after due to its culinary appeal, but is increasingly seen as healthy alternative to red meat. A transgenic line of Atlantic salmon (AquAdvantage salmon) was genetically engineered (GE) to grow faster by inserting an additional salmon growth hormone gene. The fast growth increases the annual output of aquaculture farms and also increases the efficiency of feed conversion (i.e., they need less food to produce the same amount of food compared with their slower growing, non-GE counterparts). Also, these GE-fish will be grown in contained, land-based facilities, preventing escape of the fish to the ocean and allowing general expansion of salmon aquaculture to meet growing demand without expanding the use of ocean net pens.
In addition to undergoing a thorough safety evaluation by the FDA, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) established a grants program (Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants) to develop methodologies and collect data to assess any risks associated from the application of such biotechnologies designed to provide solutions to food production problems. I was one of the first to obtain funding from this program. As a population geneticist, my proposal was to develop general methodologies to assess the potential environmental impact of escape of GE animals. After my research, I concluded that the GE salmon presented little or no environmental risk.
Further, the FDA conducted thorough safety analysis of the AquAdvantage salmon over a 15-year period. This process recently culminated with an FDA-hosted public meeting last year highlighted by the release of a comprehensive health and safety briefing and an environmental assessment package by the FDA. A Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC) was publically convened as well, for third-party review of the FDA’s finding. Summarizing 15 years of data review, the FDA publically stated that they found no issues regarding the safety of AquAdvantage salmon, and the VMAC summary indicated no findings of concern in their review.
Despite FDA’s determination that AquAdvantage salmon is “as safe to eat as food from conventional Atlantic salmon,” critics continue to raise concerns relating to allergenicity, levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and composition of polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as the potential impacts of the fish on the natural environment. Researchers have systematically gone through each of these concerns and showed that they were unfounded and/or selectively misused science to again support a protectionist or anti-GE agenda.
Last month, the FDA cleared the AquAdvantage salmon and the proposal is now at the White House Office of Management and Budget for consideration. However, there are many groups protesting its approval. I believe AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as its non-GE counterparts and pose less of a risk of harm to native salmon than domesticated salmon reared in net pens. I urge the U.S. government to approve the fish for commercial production and consumption. The result would be a win-win-win for environmental sustainability, farmer profitability, and availability of a healthy food to consumers.