GMO salmon debate: 'Frankenfish' or Wunderfish?

Proponents say the engineered salmon will be good for its wild brethren, but detractors fear its introduction into the food supply.

Just in time for salmon season, the Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of approving genetically modified salmon, dubbed “frankenfish” by some and considered a wunderfish by others.

The salmon would be the first-ever transgenic animal (one that carries a foreign gene that has been inserted into its DNA) to be available to both U.S. and world consumers. It looks like any other salmon, but there is a definite twist.

Exacerbating criticism, current laws and initial reports suggest the fish would not be required to be labeled, a point the FDA has not yet determined. “A decision has not yet been made regarding labeling for AquAdvantage Salmon,” an FDA spokeswoman told MSN News last week.

RELATED: Point/Counterpoint: Genetically modified food

AquaBounty Technologies of Massachusetts first officially applied in 1995 for FDA approval to allow its AquAdvantage salmon to be sold in U.S. stores. The salmon was bred with two extra genes — a growth hormone from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from ocean pout. This modification allows the salmon to grow all year around, not just in the warm summer months. The fish grow to full size in half the standard time of the three years it takes a wild Atlantic salmon to mature.

Genetically modified food

Click image to see: Is GMO in your food

Bred in contained structures in Panamanian waters to avoid contamination of the wild supply, as well as the environmental risks (such as excess waste) that farmed salmon is increasingly accused of, the fish has sparked some passion for it, but mostly against it.

 “The GE salmon has no socially redeeming value; it’s bad for the consumer, bad for the environment and bad for our native salmon,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety

In fact, worldwide, genetic modification is regarded with much skepticism, an inevitable downward slide into an increasingly artificial and cruel(er) world, according to critics. National grocery stores, including the chains Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Bi-Lite Market and Aldi, have vowed not to carry the fish, should it be approved.

RELATED: International protest against genetically modified food

In January, seven U.S. senators urged the FDA to extend the period for public comment, which ended last Friday. Since January, 1.5 million people have submitted comments, a dramatic increase from the initial 400,000 received by the February closing date for public comments. The FDA has received letters and comments from engineers, salmon industry professionals, chefs, religious groups, environmental groups and consumers of all backgrounds.

Detractors claim that the FDA, scientific and agency reviews fall short, and that there are several lingering health and environmental issues associated with the genetically modified (or GM) salmon. Environmentalists are concerned that AquAdvantage fish will escape and reproduce, threatening the wild population. Food safety and health activist groups feel that current testing can’t rule out unknown risks to human health. The Organic Consumers Union claims that AquAdvantage contains elevated levels of the growth hormone IGF-1, which is linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers.

“The AquAdvantage salmon studies, by their very design, underreport or fail to detect health problems and abnormalities in the fish,” says Nina Mak, a research analyst with the American Anti-Vivisection Society, which pioneered a letter to the FDA from 22 U.S. animal protection agencies. “Yet we know that genetic engineering is fraught with failures and unintended consequences.”

But vocal supporters of the fish say research actually suggests that the engineered salmon is good for the wild population.

RELATED: Whole Foods to shun genetically modified seafood

“We should all be rooting for the agency to do the right thing and approve the AquAdvantage salmon,” writes Emily Anthes in The New York Times. She is the author of the 2013 book "Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts."

Anthes is one amid a number of high-profile voices rooting for GM salmon with the belief — and research they believe to back it up — it is the best potential solution to overrun salmon farms and increasing demand for fish as the world’s population booms.

“If allowed into the marketplace, the AquAdvantage salmon . . . could lead to lower salmon prices and an increase in consumption of salmon, a heart-healthy food,” writes Jon Entine, director of the Genetic Literacy Project, in Slate.

RELATED: Why worry about genetic engineering?

Christie Wilcox, a science reporter and Ph.D. student studying protein toxins in venomous fish at the University of Hawaii, has been a loud advocate of the benefits of genetically modified crops in her column for Discover magazine. Wilcox thinks there is a certain naïveté in the concerns over the health risks of GM salmon.

“I see no reason why these fish pose more of a health risk,” she says, citing a recent study that found over 80 percent of the world’s fish are unsafe to eat often, due to high mercury levels. “Many people are unaware of the risks they take on a regular basis in eating fish. The risk posed by growth hormones pales in comparison to the risks already posed by wild-caught fish.”

Defining genetic modification and its presence in our food supply is a politically and socially fraught process. Sixty-four countries, including Japan, Australia, Thailand, Russia and all of the European Union member states, ban or significantly restrict the production and sale of genetically modified organisms, which are crops altered by introducing foreign genes into their genome strands. In 2011, Peru became the first country in the Americas to introduce a 10-year ban on GMOs.

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