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Genetically Engineered or GMO Salmon

The salmon may become the first genetically modified animal raised for food.

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GE Salmon Protest Sign
©Doris Lin 2013, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Updated April 18, 2013

The salmon may be the first genetically modified animal raised for food in the United States. While animal rights activists oppose eating animals regardless of whether they are genetically modified, there are special animal welfare concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered foods.

What is a GMO or Genetically Modified Organism?

In the European Union, the legal definition of a GMO is "an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." The EU has banned the deliberate release of GMOs and GMO products into the environment and requires GMO foods to undergo a rigorous safety assessment. In the EU, foods containing more than 1% GMOs must be labeled.

In a GMO, the genes are altered by inserting genetic material into the genome of an organism in a laboratory without natural mating, breeding or reproduction. Instead of selectively breeding living beings to bring out certain traits in the offspring, the plant, animal or microbe has DNA from another organism inserted. Creating GMOs is one type of genetic engineering.

There are two types of GMOs: transgenic and cisgenic. A transgenic organism is a GMO that contains DNA from another species. A cisgenic organism is a GMO that contains DNA from a member of the same species, and is generally regarded as the less risky type of GMO.

Why are GMOs and Genetically Modified Foods Controversial?

Proponents of GMOs argue that GMOs are designed to solve problems. Genetically modified plants and animals can be designed to grow faster, require fewer resources, resist insect damage and disease, and/or resist herbicides that are used on weeds. These traits can be very valuable for feeding a growing human population in a finite world. And since GMOs have been on the market since 1996, any immediate harmful effects would be known by now.

However, opponents point out that GMOs are relatively new, and the full effects and risks of GMOs are not fully understood. Studies have shown that feeding GMOs to rats causes liver and kidney problems. The effects on the ecosystem are also difficult to predict if GMOs are released into the wild and breed with or compete with wild populations. Opponents are also suspicious of the US Food and Drug Administration's regulation of GMOs, given the cozy relationship between Monsanto (the corporation whose name has become synonymous with GMOs, agricultural chemicals and everything that is wrong with modern agriculture) and the federal government.

Learn more about the arguments for and against GMOs.

GMOs, Animal Rights and Animal Welfare

Turning animals into GMOs is a problem because confining the animals, using them for food and experiments and altering the animals' DNA violates their right to be free of human exploitation. While animal rights activists oppose the use of any animals for food, regardless of whether they have been genetically engineered, genetic engineering adds another layer of exploitation and suffering. Patenting genetically modified animals is also objectionable because it perpetuates the property status of animals, rather than recognizing that they are sentient beings with their own interests. The law has been moving towards treating animals, especially pets, as more than mere property.

When crops are genetically modified, they are first tested on animals, again violating the animals' rights.

If any GMOs are released in the wild, and those individuals compete with or breed with wild specimens, the effects on the ecosystem are unknown and could harm people, plants and animals.

Genetically Engineered Salmon

The FDA is considering an application by AquaBounty Technologies to approve a genetically engineered salmon for human consumption. The genetically engineered fish is an Atlantic salmon with genetic material from a chinook salmon inserted. If approved, AquAdvantage Fish would be the first genetically engineered animal to enter the U.S. food supply. According to AquaBounty, the GE salmon grows so fast, it reaches market weight in half the time of the non-engineered fish. The company plans to produce only sterile, female individuals, and to raise them in land-based facilities to minimize the chances of escape.

However, according to an issue brief from Food and Water Watch, the GE salmon "demonstrates serious risks to consumer health, animal welfare, fishing economies and the environment." The group also says that the new fish does not live up to the hype.

For example, data submitted to the FDA does not demonstrate the phenomenal growth that AquaBounty has touted to the public and the media, according to FWW. While the fish may grow faster than conventional Atlantic salmon, they require five times more food, need almost twice as much oxygen and have higher rates of deformities, such as jaw erosions and inflammation.

One criticism of the FDA's handling of the issue is that the agency has chosen to treat the genetic engineering as a veterinary drug instead of treating the GE fish as a new food product. As a result, the agency has not conducted or required studies on the effects on human health.

Organic lifestyle website Rodale.com points out, "It already takes four pounds of wild fish to feed a pound of farmed fish, and their rapid growth rate will likely require more than that (so much for solving the problem of overfishing)."

And while AquaBounty's facilities may isolate the GE fish from wild populations, the company intends to license the technology to third parties that may or may not implement the same safety measures. Colin O'Neil, regulatory policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, notes that the company's own documents show that up to 5% of the supposedly sterile fish are actually fertile, and could breed with wild fish.

In their comments to the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Food Safety opposes the approval of the new fish and urges the FDA to at least label the genetically engineered salmon if it is approved. According to CFS, a Washington Post poll showed that 95% of respondents believe that GE salmon should be labeled.

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