Genetically engineered food has been on our supermarket shelves since the early 1990s. GM foods are organisms that have had DNA alterations through genetic engineering, either through selective breeding or tissue transfer. Today, 89 percent of soybeans, 60 percent of corn, and 83 percent of cotton are genetically modified. Now, the New York Times reports that a biotechnology company wants to do the same for salmon.

AquaBounty Technologies, based in Waltham, Mass., has developed a new salmon that will grow at twice the normal rate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the new fish. Currently, most Atlantic salmon is farmed in fisheries. This salmon would contain various genes from other cousins that would make it grow up to market size in 16 to 18 months, as opposed to three years. Ronald L. Stotish is the chief executive of AquaBounty. As he told the NY Times, “You don’t get salmon the size of the Hindenburg. You can get to those target weights in a shorter time.”

Further, AquaBounty says the company has demonstrated that the new genes do not harm the salmon and that they do not mutate through future generations. The company maintains that its salmon is “indistinguishable” in taste, vitamins and other nutrients. The fish would be kept in pens so the altered fish could not to escape into the wild. They would also be female and sterile.

Should the FDA approve AquaBounty’s salmon, others may follow. The NY Times reports that this may pave the way for other genetically engineered animals, such as a pig that produces less methane and is therefore better for the environment. AquaBounty has been attempting to get approval for its salmon for the 10 years.

Environmentalists worry that such a fish could escape into the wild and edge out its smaller, non-modified cousins in the food chain. Environmentalists and GM food have long been at odds, as biologists worry about harm to other organisms through unintended gene transfer or a literal “survival of the fittest,” with the non-GM organisms losing out. Critics also worry that GM foods could have a negative, unknown impact on human health. Stotish counters that the fast-growing fish could feed the world’s hungry with a smaller environmental impact.

At present, Americans may not be ready for modified meat. Food does not have to be labeled as “genetically engineered” because it is not nutritionally different from non-GMs. As the NY Times reports, “Some public opinion surveys have shown that Americans are more wary about genetically engineered animals than about the genetically engineered crops now used in a huge number of foods.” However, if the foods were shown to have positive environmental or nutritional outcomes, people would be more accepting. 

For further reading:

FDA considers genetically altered salmon
AquaBounty Technologies hopes to get approval for a genetically altered fish that grows at twice the normal rate.