By Lewis Smith
Atlantic salmon has become the first animal in the world to be approved for human consumption with genetic modifications.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its approval for the fish, which grows twice as fast as non-GM salmon but has been described as “Frankenfish” by opponents, following years of negotiations.
AquaBounty Technologies, the company which developed the GM fish, hailed the decision as a “game changer” but a coalition of more than 20 campaign groups were dismayed.
The decision to allow the GM fish to enter the market remains controversial and several retailers in the US have announced they will boycott it.
It is yet to be licensed for use in the UK or other parts of Europe and legal challenges are likely to be made before it can be served in restaurants or the home.
The decision was given a cautious welcome by Professor Bruce Whitelaw, Professor of Animal Biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh, who said regulators had been provided with a wealth of data before giving their ruling.
“AquaBounty have successfully navigated through a wealth of challenges - political, financial, regulatory, scientific - all under acute public scrutiny, to arrive at this point,” he said.
“Now it is up to the market to determine how successful this product will be and what contribution it will make to our society. In addition, this announcement signals that such products can be produced safely in our environment and are considered likely to contribute to society's needs.”
Professor Helen Sang, Personal Chair in Vertebrate Molecular Development at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The company has provided extensive information for evaluation of the safety of the salmon as a food and of the potential environmental risks. These data have been made freely available and scrutinised by regulators and external groups.
“It is very encouraging to see that the process of evaluating risks has at last been completed and that the use of genetic modification for breed improvement can be progressed after careful evaluation of risks.”
However, Dr Joe Perry, former chairman of the European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel said EU regulators would be likely to demand stiffer assurances that it is safe and will not be able to damage wild stocks if they escape.
“There remain legitimate ecological concerns over the possible consequences if these GM salmon escape to the wild and reproduce, despite FDA assurances over containment and sterility, neither of which can be guaranteed,” he cautioned.
“My view is that if an application were to be made for such GM salmon to be released in Europe, then the risk assessment would require considerably more data to demonstrate the efficacy of the induced sterility in these GM salmon than were required by the FDA.”
While deeming the GM fish safe to eat and accepting it posed little threat to wild stocks while contained in land-based tanks, the FDA specified that its approval extended only to two hatcheries, one in canal and the other in Panama.
The fish is an Atlantic salmon which has had genes added from the Pacific Chinook salmon and the ocean pout. The effect is to rapidly speed up its development because it will grow all year round instead of seasonally.
Dr Ronald Stotish, chief executive of AquaBounty, commented, was delighted with the FDA ruling and bullish about the GM salmon’s advantages, both to consumers and fish farmers.
“AquAdvantage Salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats,” he said.
“Using land-based aquaculture systems, this rich source of protein and other nutrients can be farmed close to major consumer markets in a more sustainable manner.”
Nevertheless, many campaigners remain unconvinced about the merits of meat, fowl or fish being genetically modified. Greenpeace is among the groups opposed to the FDA’s decision and said in a statement: “The risk to wild salmon is real. Escapes of farmed salmon from cages are common, and the escape of GMO salmon could result in the genetic contamination of already stressed wild Atlantic stocks if interbreeding were to take place.
“These frankenfish could also displace wild fish populations, compete for food and disrupt natural aquatic food webs and ecosystems.”
Picture: The GM fish compared to a conventionally grown salmon of the same age. Credit: AquaBounty Technologies