Why the worry about GM salmon?

The general reaction to the news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may well give the go-ahead for farmed salmon that has been genetically modified to dramatically speed up its growth, is, unfortunately, all too predictable. No one seems to have a positive word to say about it.

Are these usually over-the-top, and sometimes even hysterical, responses to GM fish really necessary? Do any consumers have any faith in the FDA and that it will ensure that these fish produced this way are nutritious and safe to eat, and that the farming of these fish will have no adverse effect on wild salmon stocks?

It was very interesting to read the rebuttal by AquaBounty Technologies, the company developing the genetically modified salmon, of the claim by a coalition of consumer, animal welfare, environmental and fishermen’s groups that its AquAdvantage salmon represented a serious threat to native salmon populations.

Ronald Stotish, AquaBounty’s executive director, president and CEO, called the coalition’s claims “inaccurate, deliberately misleading and intended to create fear and misunderstanding.” This seems a fair reflection and, unfortunately, typifies the usual reaction when this topic is raised.

What has happened to calm and reasoned response? Are the “Frankenfish” headlines of a few years ago — when consumers were told that fish were going to be bred with two heads and other absurd deformities — coming back? Let’s hope that the lurid headlines won’t be repeated.

This really would be an excellent way to dissuade people from eating fish. And we need more people to eat more fish, particularly as the news has just broken that U.S. seafood consumption in 2009 dropped to its lowest level since 2002.

So what is so dreadful about the use of a technique that will considerably speed up the growth of a very popular fish species? According to AquaBounty, the technology will allow salmon farmers to grow fish to a market size of about 8 pounds in just 18 months, compared to the standard 36 months. Looking at the situation objectively, it will provide more salmon, the price will come down and more salmon will be sold. Of course, it is unlikely that it will all be so simple.

The most obvious barrier to the introduction of the faster growing salmon will be if resultant products have to be labeled as having come from genetically modified fish. Consumers in the more developed countries of the world have already been scared off from buying, let alone eating, any food product which contains the now dreaded “GMO” label. Consumers in the less developed countries, of course, just want to be able to buy reasonably priced, preferably cheap, food products.

But could this be one of the reasons for the response, or is this being just too cynical? Salmon farmers in countries such as Scotland and Norway are currently making money hand over fist because of the unfortunate collapse of the Chilean salmon industry. And isn’t the disease problem in Chile more a cause for our immediate concern rather than the genetic modification of salmon to speed up their growth, which may never happen?

“Our salmon will very effectively help to meet the demand for food from the growing world population,” said Stotish. And he has a point. Even if U.S. seafood consumption remains low at 15.8 pounds per capita, the natural increase in the number of mouths to feed in the United States will be difficult to satisfy even at this level in the not too distant future.

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