Genetically Modified Salmon: Coming Soon(ish) to a Fish Market Near you

Salmon of the future!
A few months ago, the Waltham, Mass-based company AquaBounty Technologies created something of a stir among scientists, biotechnologists, fish farmers and those prone to freaking the fuck out over things like genetically modified foods and daydreams of oceans full of 900lb salmon with giant teeth, flipper-hands and a yen for world domination. They caused this uproar by doing nothing more than submitting to the FDA data relating to their newest product: a genetically altered salmon capable of growing to full weight in just 16 to 18 months rather than three years.

Actually, it wasn't really the submission of data that caused the brouhaha, but their request that the FDA approve said Salmon of the Future for consumption by the public--a thing that the FDA has never done before. Sure, we eat genetically modified fruits and vegetables all the time. There are genetically modified crops being grown all over the place (and, as yet, not a single stalk of GM wheat has walked out of the field and tried to eat the brain of a farmer). But, if AquaBouty got its way, this Super Salmon would be the first genetically engineered animal ever approved for human consumption.

Unsurprisingly, people just went totally batshit crazy over this.

So that was a couple months ago. Today, the Miracle Salmon (which is really called the "AquAdvantage Salmon" in the weirdly-capitalized patois of the AquaBounty scientists) is in the news again because the FDA--which is currently in the middle of three day's worth of hearings, all revolving around the AquAdvantage Salmon--has already decided that, if the fish is approved, it probably won't be able to force producers to label the fish as genetically altered.

Here's why, according to Saturday's Washington Post:

"The FDA says it cannot require a label on the genetically modified food once it determines that the altered fish is not "materially" different from other salmon - something agency scientists have said is true."

This is actually what AquaBounty has spent the past decade or so trying to prove to the FDA: that the genetically altered fish (which is essentially an Atlantic salmon, with one growth hormone gene in its ladder from a Chinook salmon and a kind of genetic light switch turned permanently to the on position, courtesy of the ocean pout) is not only safe to eat and breed through successive generations, but also nutritionally and fundamentally equivalent to every other non-fucked-with salmon swimming around.

The FDA met Sunday to discuss whether or not the fish should be allowed for human consumption. And an advisory committee is meeting again today on the same topic. Tuesday, another meeting will be held to hash ouot the labeling question. And after that, the panels will all offer recommendations to the commissioner of the FDA, who will then have the unlovely and thankless job of trying to make a decision about whether or not we'll all be eating mutants in the future.

So because salmon is such a big deal around these parts, I'm curious to know what you people think about the salmon of the future. Should it be labeled? Should it just be sold alongside unmodified fish with no additional information? Should it be disallowed entirely? I am of two minds on the subject. First, being a ginormous science fiction geek, I know all too well that whenever someone in a lab coat starts tinkering with the genetic make-up of anything from a baby to a head of cauliflower, bad things happen. Eventually, inevitably, said baby, head of cauliflower (or UberSalmon) will throw off the shackles of its bespectacled creators and rise up to wreak havoc on the villagers, demand voting rights and take over the world and/or universe. So with that in mind, let me be the first to humbly welcome the coming reign of our new piscine overlords.

Second, having a reasonably decent grounding in the hard sciences, I understand the basic mechanics of genetics, evolution and the odd place that transgenic manipulation holds between the two. I know that the primary goal of any salmon is to make more little salmon and to pass on its good, strong genes to its offspring. I know that their secondary reason for existing is to provide meat for me (and bears) to eat. I know that genetic manipulation is just a way for people--impatient with the epoch-spanning time frames within which natural evolution occurs--to speed up the process and make things that are already pretty good (as proven by their continued existence) even better. Like a salmon that can grow to market weight in half the time it normally takes. I get that changing a couple genes in something's DNA does not materially alter the thing itself (at least when it comes to eatin'), but that these changes can also fundamentally effect both the perception of the thing (there just isn't that much genetic difference between a human and a chimpanzee, but only one of them makes an appropriate prom date) and its role in everything from the stock market (AquaBounty is a publicly traded company in London) to the supermarket.

So what do you think, folks? Check out the full Washington Post story here, maybe take a gander at the FDA advisory committee's materials, and then have at it. The 1st amendment is awesome. Make it your bitch.

comments powered by Disqus