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Do We Really Want to Eat Genetically Modified Salmon?

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Many are hoping the AquAdvantage salmon (AAS), often referred to as a "Frankenfish," is not approved by the FDA. The genetically modified salmon, created by Boston-based AquaBounty Technologies, is created to grow twice as fast as wild Atlantic salmon-reaching its full size in 18 months instead of three years. It was created by inserting genetic material from Chinook salmon and ocean pout into wild Atlantic salmon. No wonder it's called a Frankenfish.

Ninety-five to 99 percent of AAS are sterile, said AquaBounty at FDA hearings in 2010, so they are unlikely to breed and threaten wild salmon stocks if they escape. (If they did breed, though, it could Jurassic Park-like since AAS eat five times more food than wild salmon and have less fear of predators, according to background materials.) Nor is 1 to 5 percent a small amount considering the 15 million eggs AquaBounty plans to grow: that could amount to 750,000 fertile fish.

salmon

To prevent such risks, AquaBounty told an FDA advisory committee it plans to grow the eggs at a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada, where escapees could not survive. "Water from the facility, including effluent from all floor drains, fish tanks and egg incubators, eventually discharges" into a tidal river that flows into the Gulf of Lawrence, says the AquAdvantage FDA briefing package. Because water temperatures in the winter months are very low and the water has a high salinity, "it is highly unlikely that early life stages of any Atlantic salmon at the facility would be able to survive if they were able to escape."

But escape into the Gulf of Lawrence is not the only risk. AquaBounty also has safety plans for the adult salmon, which it plans to grow out and slaughter in the country of Panama because that environment is also hostile to survival. "In the lower reaches of the watershed, the water temperature is in the range of 26 to 28 degrees C, at or near the upper incipient lethal level for Atlantic salmon," says the FDA report. "As a result, it is extremely unlikely that AquAdvantage Salmon would ever be able to survive and migrate to the Pacific Ocean."

In the FDA briefing report, AquAdvantage salmon were also found to have high incidences of "jaw erosion" and "focal inflammation" (infection), though the defects are said to be "of low magnitude and not likely to be debilitating to fish in a production setting." What about the people who eat them? The report also identified low glucose levels and a possible "increase in the level of IGF-1 [insulin-like growth factor-1] in the AquAdvantage salmon compared to sponsor control fish."

Perhaps most troubling at the FDA hearings was AquaBounty's policy for handling dead fish in Panama. In its Environmental Assessment report, it says, "As dead fish are deposited, they will be covered with caustic lime, followed by another layer of dead fish and caustic lime, and so on, until the burial pit is ~0.5 m deep, at which point it will [be] sealed with plastic and covered with soil. Successive pits will be located at a minimum distance of 0.5-1.0 m from those used previously; the aggregate collection of such pits will be located on high ground that is not within the 100-year flood plain. . . . In the event that disposal capacity at the site is inadequate to handle the immediate or aggregate waste volume, alternative means of disposal will be sought."

Why are so many fish expected to die? Why would people want to eat such unhealthy fish? Why are the health of the environment, humans and fish overlooked when considering GMOs like the AquAdvantage salmon?

The complete story of the AquAdvantage salmon is found in Martha Rosenberg's acclaimed expose, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus Books, 2012.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health Read more stories by Martha Rosenberg.

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