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July 27, 2010

US Government Considering Genetically Modified Animal for Human Consumption

by Zulima Palacio

The US government is considering, for the first time, the approval of a genetically-modified animal for human consumption.  The animal being considered is salmon, but approval could open the door for other animals as well.  Those who favor the move say it would help feed the world's rapidly-growing population at a time that depleted rivers and oceans are becoming unable to fulfill the demand. 

After years of consideration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reported to be ready to approve commercial sale of a genetically-modified salmon for human consumption.   The controversial decision - which has been years in the making - could open the door for other genetically-modified animals as well.  

AquaBounty - a company with roots in the United States and Canada, has been studying and modifying the genetics of salmon for more than 20 years.  Ronald Stotish is the President of AquaBounty Technologies.

"It's a salmon that grows approximately twice as fast as a conventional salmon and it grows at that rate simply because we have given it a second copy of the growth hormone gene from the salmon," said Ronald Stotish. "It's a salmon gene in a salmon."

Stotish says AquaBounty chose salmon because of its high nutritional value.

"We expect as the world population increases, the requirement for high quality protein sources will increase," he said. "Fish are among the most efficient converters of feed to edible protein."  

Stotish says US approval is a very important step in the eventual commercialization of this fish for "aquaculture", or fish-farming, around the world.

"All we sell is an egg that produces an all female salmon, they are all sterile," said Stotish. "They will also be grown on land base contained systems, tanks or raise ways, similar to the way trout is produced now."

Stotish says producing only sterile females, and raising them in contained systems, avoids the environmental concern of escapes that could affect the biodiversity of wild salmon.  He says people should not be concerned that the fish are genetically modified

"In the US we're already consuming significant quantities of genetically-modified soy beans, wheat, sorghum and a variety of agricultural crops and that is true around the world," he said.

However, that is only partially true.  According to a World Bank Report, only 22 countries have planted genetically-modified seeds, on about eight percent of the global crop area.  The reason, the report says, is the public perception of health and environmental risks.

The European Union regulates genetically-modified crops strictly, allowing only a handful of their products.  Most recently, the EU proposed to give individual member countries the option to allow or restrict them.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration - which would make the decision on approval - declines to comment.  But the Department of Agriculture expresses concern about the depletion of wild fish stocks and the need for more food production.  Mark Mirando is with the Department's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

"The demand for seafood in the US and worldwide is rapidly increasing but the ability of the oceans to supply that food, even at the current levels, disregarding population increases and increases in demand; the ability of the oceans to supply that is diminishing," said Mark Mirando.

According to the Agriculture Department's figures, the value of aquaculture production in the U.S. has risen to nearly $1 billion over the past 20 years, mostly due to a growing demand for fish in general and harvesting restrictions on wild fish.

"If the genetic modification is shown to be safe and there is no concern that the animals would escape into the wild and outcompete the native stocks then I think this could be a valuable approach to improving the efficiency of food production," he said.

Regardless of population projections - given the reservations about genetically-modified crops around the world - it is easy to speculate that a genetically-modified food animal could encounter even greater resistance and controversy.