Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Scientists building a whole new salmon species to farm

I'm keen on building a better world through science.
But the idea of creating a new species of salmon in the lab, patenting it, raising the new creature in fish farms and selling it to consumers freaks me out, as the young people used to say.
That's what AquaBounty, a U.S.-based aquaculture company, is proposing. The company has applied for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its genetically modified Atlantic salmon. It even has a name for the new fish - AquaAdvantage(r) Salmon.
AquaBounty likes the fish because it reaches market size in 18 months; normal farmed Atlantic salmon take three years.
The new fish was engineered that way. The company took Atlantic salmon DNA and added a gene from Chinook salmon, which are bigger eaters.
Then it added a gene from the ocean pout, a big eel-like fish. The pout has remarkable tolerance for cold water; its gene triggers the Chinook eating gene to help the new fish pack on weight quickly.
The plan is to produce eggs for the new AquaAdvantage fish at the company's Prince Edward Island plant. They would be flown to Panama where the salmon would be raised in land-based tanks. Then they would make their way back to our tables.
We eat genetically modified foods every day. Most people's cupboards are full of food products - corn, soy, rice - that rely on genetically modified seeds.
Not everyone agrees, but the benefits in increased food production have widely been seen to outweigh the drawbacks.
But the AquaAdvantage(r) Salmon is the first effort to create a new animal, bird or fish as a food source.
As they say in the movies, what could possibly go wrong?
The FDA has given the fish preliminary approval for human consumption. The meat isn't chemically or nutritionally different from Atlantic salmon. But the U.S. agency hasn't yet given approval for the plan.
Critics aren't convinced. Some research, they say, suggests more allergies could be created by genetically modified food.
But the bigger issues are around the impact of the fish on the environment. What if the AquaAdvantage salmon escaped from the fish farms. It's genetically programmed to grow twice as fast as real Atlantic salmon. That could mean it would be twice as effective in gobbling up food sources, leaving the wild fish struggling to compete.
No worries, says AquaBounty. The P.E.I. lab will only create eggs that produce sterile females. The Panama fish farms mean that even if there is an escape, the salmon will die in the warm rivers in that country.
And if, through some bizarre series of circumstances, the ubersalmon ended up in the oceans off Canada, they are not likely to do well, the corporation says
And the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance says it's not interested in using the lab-created salmon.
The problem is that the salmon aquaculture industry has some credibility issues. It insisted, for example, that escaped Atlantic salmon could not possibly spawn in B.C. rivers.
Until researchers found the offspring of escaped fish swimming in Island streams.
This is about much more than salmon farms. Researchers have lots of ideas about building new, improved animals.
Scientists at the University of Guelph, for example, hope to get approval for a genetically modified pig. Hogs need phosphorus but are lousy at digesting it. That means farmers pay for supplements and the manure is an environmental problem as the undigested phosphorus is a fertilizer that can promote algae growth in water systems.
The Enviropig, as they call it, cam digest phosphorus more efficiently, solving both problems.
What's striking about the bid to win approval for the AquaAdvantage salmon is the inadequate process. The U.S. FDA has a limited mandate. The broader issues of creating new species need not be addressed.
Trust us, the food companies' scientists say. Everything will be fine.
What could possibly go wrong?
Footnote: The FDA is also undecided on whether the genetically modified salmon would have to be labelled so consumers would know what they were - or weren't buying. The industry opposes labeling as unnecessary.
In the near term, the fish would be identifiable - there aren't many Atlantic salmon that would be labeled 'Product of Panama. But that would be little use if more new species are approved for sale to consumers.

1 comment:

DPL said...

The only salmon our family has ever caught, or bought swims wild and if the wild salmon disappear from having stupid in water fish farms I guess we won't be having salmon any more