AquaBounty’s salmon was widely expected to be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. But 16 or so years after first approaching the agency, AquaBounty is still waiting for a decision.
Today most corn and soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified, and supermarket shelves are replete with sodas, cereals, and snacks containing genetically engineered ingredients. So far the butcher section is 100 percent GMO-free.
The FDA gave AquaBounty favorable reviews in 2010, when its Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee declared the salmon as safe as conventional Atlantic salmon and determined that it wasn’t a threat to the environment. The fish is an Atlantic salmon modified to grow three times as fast as usual, allowing it to mature in a record 18 months rather than three years.
However, the FDA has not yet published a final environmental assessment that is that AquaBounty anticipates will precede a final decision.
The salmon—which is being bred in Canada and reared at an inland facility in Panama—differs from its wild cousins in that it’s been modified to include a growth hormone gene from the fast-growing Chinook salmon and a regulatory sequences from the ocean pout.
Opponents say that the fish could escape, outcompeting wild fish. AquaBounty says its product will be more environmentally sustainable than other farmed salmon, because it will take less time and food to grow it. They say the fish have almost no chance of escape to the ocean. Even if they escape, they’ve been bred to be all female and infertile, and the ocean around Panama is too warm for any escapees to survive.
It is uncertain when the FDA will finally decide the fish’s case. In May an FDA spokeswoman told The New York Times that the environmental assessment would come “very soon.” She said that it was taking the FDA an unusually long time to assess because it was the first product of its kind.
Other scientists working to commercialize genetically modified animals for consumption have also been discouraged by regulatory hurdles and poor public opinion of genetic modification. James Murray, a scientist at University of California, Davis, has moved his herd of genetically modified goats to Brazil, where he hopes for a friendlier environment for commercialization. The animals’ milk has antimicrobial properties, and he hopes it can be used to prevent infections in infants.
Scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, this past spring discontinued a project to create “enviropigs” whose manure polluted less than ordinary pigs. They killed the herd they had bred, having lost funding from a coalition of local pork producers.
Cecil Forsberg, who helped engineer the pigs, told The New York Times in April that he may have been overly optimistic in 1999 when the herd was starting out: “I had the feeling in seven or eight or nine years that transgenic animals probably would be acceptable. But I was wrong.”
Genetically modified agriculture holds both the promise of drought- and virus-resistant crops and the peril of unraveling the natural food chain. But like it or not, it’s one genie that’s already out of the bottle.