The Future of New England Seafood

GMO Salmon: Food of the Future?

Atlantic salmon is known as the King of Fish. Image via NOAA Fisheries.

Americans have a certain fascination with “food of the future.” Take your general sci-fi entertainment: from the Jetsons’ 3D printed food to the recent Star Wars movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here), the entertainment industry has long played with the idea of food production. And in such a short time span, our society has already achieved some of the dreamed-up innovations of the sci-fi world. Many Americans (as well as people around the world), however, don’t seem to embrace this innovation as much as the Jetsons did.

We are referring to the recently FDA-approved AquAdvantage salmon – the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. But even given the impressive strides that the aquaculture industry has achieved in the last ten years – facilities and farming techniques have become more environmentally friendly, increasingly productive, and less taxing on resources and energy – this salmon has still made a controversial splash in the headlines. Most recently, members of Congress inserted a provision into the omnibus federal spending bill that prohibits the sale of genetically modified salmon until the FDA establishes “labeling guidelines” for the product. Even though this stipulation is only in effect until September 2016, it gets to the heart of the issue with GMO salmon – consumer choice.

AquAdvantage salmon is engineered using Atlantic salmon that have been incorporated with a growth gene from Pacific Chinook salmon and a promoter gene as an “on switch” from ocean pout. Initial FDA-approval did not require AquAdvantage salmon to be labeled as GMO because the agency found no “material difference – such as a different nutrient profile” between it and natural Atlantic salmon. Even though these engineered fish grow twice as fast, require 25% less feed to reach market size, have a 1:1 feed to body weight ratio, and supposedly have the same taste and health benefits as their wild-caught counterparts, many environmentally-minded consumers demand transparency. They want to know what it is that they are eating.

Additionally, this is one of those issues where many environmentalists and fishermen (not to say that the two are mutually exclusive) see eye-to-eye. Salmon fishermen are concerned that if GMO salmon is not distinguished from wild-caught salmon, consumers will likely avoid the fish all-together. Ultimately the lack of labeling has ignited a fear amongst wild salmon fishermen that they may lose their market and also that conventionally grown Atlantic salmon won’t be able to compete in the marketplace with their GMO-modified “doubles.”

There are also alternative arguments that the public should not even be focusing their attention and resources on genetically modified fish. The United States already catches enough wild pacific salmon to satisfy the annual per capita salmon demand; however, due to convoluted marketing systems, a majority of this catch is exported to Asia and Europe, and the United States is in turn forced to import farmed salmon from South America to fill the gap. Some experts believe that fixing these distribution systems is the reasonable first step before turning to aquaculture and genetically modified species.

Ultimately, humans are always thinking of new and innovative ways to produce food for the earth’s exploding populations. There will certainly always be conflicting opinions and a battle over what’s right and wrong to eat, but with the demand for seafood increasing every year, coupled with changing ocean conditions from carbon pollution, GMO fish might very well become a mainstream source of food in the future. Nonetheless, some truth in packaging seems to be the least that is called for.


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