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GM Salmon Safe to Eat? Not so Fast, Critics Say

National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver, a Washington, D.C.-based chef, writer, and ocean advocate talks to Green Guide about genetically engineered salmon.

By Rachel Kaufman

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that genetically engineered salmon is safe to eat, but has not yet officially approved the fish for sale.

The final-approval process could take years, but is not likely to require that much time unless the FDA decides that the fish could pose a significant environmental impact.

In the meantime, activists and legislators are working together to get the so-called frankenfish banned.

Eleven U.S. senators, mostly from coastal states, have signed a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg requesting that the approval process be halted.

A similar letter was signed by 29 members of the House of Representatives. Another 53 environmental groups and food businesses endorsed both letters, and a Food & Water Watch poll found that 78 percent of Americans believe the salmon should not be approved for human consumption.

salmon1.jpgPhotograph of sockeye salmon in Adams River, British Columbia, Canada, by Robert Sission.

GM Salmon an Easy Fix?

So why is genetically engineered fish even on the table, so to speak?

AquaBounty, the makers of the fish, say that their GM salmon–dubbed AquAdvantage–eat 10 percent less food than a traditional salmon, grow twice as quickly, and are safe and sustainable. And so far, the FDA appears to agree with AquaBounty: an advisory committee said in a September 20 hearing that the fish seems to be safe.

Critics say the health risks to humans are unknown. For instance, the FDA has relied on studies that use small samples of fish–one study used just six fish–and that were performed by AquaBounty or its contractors.

AquAdvantage salmon are sterile female Atlantic salmon with a growth gene from the Chinook, or king, salmon, and a gene that acts as an “on switch” from a fish called the pout, which keeps the growth hormone “on” permanently. If approved, it will be the first GM animal sold for human consumption.

Since no one has yet eaten an AquAdvantage fish, it may be hard to take a hard stance on whether the animal is safe to eat–though some critics have contended that the fish will aggravate allergies in some people, at the very least.

Sustainable Chef: Wild for Alaska Salmon

To get more background on the issue, Green Guide spoke with National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver, a Washington, D.C.-based chef, writer, and ocean advocate whose restaurants serve sustainable seafood–like catfish–instead of less ecofriendly choices, such bluefin tuna. For Seaver, it’s not a question of GM or nothing.

“This is the weird thing: Wild salmon is incredibly plentiful,” he said. “Wild Alaskan salmon is exceptionally well managed. It’s delicious, it’s sustainable, it’s everything you would want it to be.

I would rather start serving frozen, processed product from Alaska than I would serve GM salmon,” he said, adding that he already doesn’t serve farm-raised salmon in his restaurants “because it doesn’t taste any good.”

In one sense, AquAdvantage fish may be more ecofriendly than traditional farm-raised salmon because all AquAdvantage fish will be raised in land-based pens. This prevents fish farm waste (which can be pretty gross and potentially harmful to sea life) from getting into the ocean, though farmers still have to deal with the waste somehow. It also prevents the GM fish, of which 1 in 20 are fertile, from escaping and wreaking possible havoc on the ecosystem.

Alaska’s Pink Salmon Underused

But still: Do we need more, bigger salmon?

“I don’t think we need more access to salmon,” Seaver said. “We need more access to foods lower on the food chain. The GM salmon is aimed at curing the ills of a fish that eats a lot and requires a lot of energy to produce a small amount of protein. So instead of farming a fish like herring, smaller species that are not carnivores–instead of going after that, we’re trying to change the very nature of the salmon.”

Seaver also dismissed the argument that farmed, engineered salmon is a way to make the fish accessible to everyone–wild sockeye is regularly $18/lb or more, even in nonspecialty grocery stores.

“Pink salmon from Alaska is an underutilized resource,” he said. “Eighty percent of what’s caught in Alaska is pink salmon. It ends up in cans, cat food, cosmetics, and biofuels, but it’s delicious fish. I think it tastes better than farmed salmon–instead of seeing it go into cat food, let’s see it go into human food. Sustainable wild food exists.”

About 111 million pink salmon are harvested in Alaska each year. The majority of it, in fact is canned or sold frozen, according to seafood-industry analyst Chris McDowell. But about one in six fish don’t make it to the plate.

McDowell said that could be blamed on the salmon’s life cycle: when a pink salmon gets ready to mate, “they get these changes – the skin darkens up, the meat color’s not so good, you look at that and go, ‘wow, ooh, ouch.'”

Seaver added that if GM salmon gets the go-ahead, he hopes that it will be labeled as genetically engineered. The FDA currently doesn’t plan to require labeling unless the salmon is proven to be “substantially different” from the conventional version, and the agency has said that isn’t the case.

“I’m not inherently against new technology,” Seaver said, “but I’m inherently against a lack of transparency. Saying that the American consumer doesn’t need to know this information is simply wrong.”

rachel-headshot.jpgRachel Kaufman is a writer and editor covering science and the environment, emerging technology, and a potpourri of other topics. Her freelance writing career has taken her inside Victorian-era “castles,” French patisseries, and a haunted train tunnel, and in addition to her work for National Geographic News, her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, ScientificAmerican.com, and CNN/Money. Rachel grew up outside Minneapolis and received her B.A. in English and journalism from Adelphi University on Long Island, but finds her constitution (and temperament) far better agrees with the swampy air of her adopted hometown, Washington D.C. Her blog and portfolio can be found at http://readwriterachel.com and she tweets about science, journalism, and video games at @rkaufman.