The FDA Just Approved the First-Ever Genetically Modified Fish

Last Update: September 29, 2022

The lifecycle of a wild Atlantic salmon takes them on an incredible six-year journey from freshwater, to the freezing north Atlantic Ocean, and back to the same river or stream where they were born, changing their own physiology along the way. Now, genetically modified farmed salmon will be able to reach full maturity within less than two years, and they’ll never have to leave a tank in the mountains of Panama to do it.

Yesterday, in an historic policy decision, the Food and Drug Administration deemed genetically modified salmon fit for consumption. This fish will be the first-ever genetically modified animal approved to be sold on the U.S. market, potentially paving the way for more GMO animals to be bred, sold, and fed to unsuspecting Americans.

This AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon (as it’s known) is part eel—a true Frankenfish. It contains a growth hormone gene from the massive Pacific king salmon, but since the salmon’s growth hormone shuts off during colder months, it’s been engineered with a gene from an ocean pout, an eel-like fish capable of growing in near-freezing waters. This amps up its potential to grow to market weight within 18 to 20 months, twice as fast as conventionally farmed salmon.

Many Americans are well-versed by now in the controversies surrounding GMO foods, from the lack of knowledge over their health impact, to their harmful effects on the environment, to the lack of transparency over their labeling. GMO fish present exactly the same issues, plus the fear that their potential escape into the wild could have a highly detrimental impact on wild salmon populations, and consequently, entire marine ecosystems.

Supposedly, the fish, contained in inland hatcheries only in Panama, don’t pose an immediate threat of escape. However, the producers of the AquAdvantage salmon are looking into building more hatcheries within the U.S. and Canada, and proliferating the eggs to more fish farmers in the future.

It will be at least two years before the salmon is sold in supermarkets, and even then, they’ll start in small amounts, since the one facility producing them only has the capacity for 100 tons of fish a year, compared to 200,000 tons of Atlantic salmon imported in the U.S. each year. But once these fish hit market, just like other GMO foods, they won’t be required to be labeled as such.

“With this latest decision to approve GMO salmon as food, our leaders in government and the food industry need to finally give Americans the right to know,” said Colin O’Neil, the Environmental Working Group’s director of agriculture policy, in a statement. Consumers can help do something about that.

In the meantime, start by raising your own consciousness about sustainable seafood. As of right now, wild Alaskan salmon and closely related species of fish like Arctic char, as well as shellfish like scallops, mussels, clams, and oysters come from well-managed, sustainable sources, and are much better options than farmed salmon and other types of seafood.

If farmed salmon is the best option available, read the label and pay attention to where it’s from; avoid Atlantic salmon that’s been imported from Scotland, Norway, Chile, or British Columbia, and eventually, Panama. In the years to come, if and when production of this GMO breed spreads to other regions, there’s hope that initiatives like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch will help make it easier to determine which areas are possible sources of GMO salmon.

Photo credit: Rowena Naylor via Stocksy

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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