Mad Science: The Threat Of Genetically Modified Seafood

Page - April 10, 2013
Some of our supporters may have seen a recent email sent by a partner organization, Food & Water Watch, pertaining to the issue of genetically modified salmon. Given the public debates surrounding this issue and confusion over seafood sustainability, our members may be curious as to our stance on the issue of genetically modified seafood as a whole. The following is our take on why genetically modified seafood is a dangerous distraction from the otherwise laudable goal of improving the sustainability of our farmed seafood supply.

There’s no doubt that aquaculture will play a crucial role in the future of seafood, and that’s why it’s critical that we map out a sensible and balanced way forward in terms of how fish are farmed. Unfortunately, there is an offshoot of the aquaculture industry that is approaching this task in a dangerously backwards manner: rather than trying to shift our food and resource paradigm, these companies are trying to alter nature to meet our broken systems through genetic engineering.

The ultimate example of this kind of misguided approach is the so-called “Frankenfish”: a genetically modified (GMO) salmon created via the transgenic splicing of genes from an ocean pout (sea eel), an Atlantic salmon, and a Chinook salmon. The company behind this, Aquabounty Technologies, has been lobbying the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the sale of its pseudo-species for consumption here in the United States. This is highly problematic for several reasons.

The Marine Environment: If approved by the FDA, there nothing would prevent companies like Aquabounty from selling this creature’s eggs to any buyer, offshore or otherwise. These GMO salmon are not fully sterile and offshore fish farms regularly experience escapes, making it likely that the animals will escape and outcompete wild salmon species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has expressed grave concerns over the high potential for escapes, and was not consulted by the FDA, even though they are required to do so under the Endangered Species Act).

Food safety: Far from traditional cross-breeding practices, transgenic modification is an entirely different process involving the use of genetic material that would never be combined through normal evolutionary processes. Splicing the genes of three different creatures can create novel problems, since genes often affect multiple characteristics and their expression can rarely be truly isolated. GMO salmon have already exhibited a high number of jaw deformities and an increased level of a potentially unsafe growth hormone. Additional concerns include the potential creation of allergic reactions in some consumers -- a concern warranted by previous allergic reactions to GMO foods (such as fish genes in strawberries).

Transparency and consumer protection: Many companies specializing in transgenic engineering have actively resisted consumers’ right-to-know by opposing proposals to require the labeling of GMO products. While most companies proudly stand behind their product, many in the industry would rather hide GMO salmon from their prospective consumers. Consumers have the right to know the whole truth about the food on their plate, especially when there is no proven nutritional benefit to consumers. To top it off, a host of other GMO animals are waiting to see whether Aquabounty’s “Frankenfish” is approved for sale before filing their own applications; the potential precedent is alarming.

At the end of the day, we should not be trying to change nature to meet the needs of a dangerously off- kilter food production system that already relies heavily on the unsustainable rearing of carnivores (tuna ranches and conventional salmon farming are good examples of this misguided approach). Rather, we should be changing the way that we think about aquaculture to meet the principles of a balanced planet – eating lower on the food chain and integrating approaches that can promote biodiversity and better mimic the intrinsic checks and balances provided by a healthy and diverse ecosystem.