Don’t Fear the Frankenfish 

The FDA approved a genetically engineered animal for human consumption. The campaign against it is based on fear, not facts.

Does it matter if this salmon is genetically engineered?

Photo by Valentyn Volkov/Thinkstock

On Thursday, for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration approved a genetically engineered animal for human consumption. It’s a salmon that grows much faster than other salmon, thanks to an inserted gene.

Some environmentalists are assailing the decision. They call the salmon “Frankenfish.” Their objections sound a lot like previous allegations against genetically engineered crops. The allegations against GE crops didn’t stand up, as a Slate investigation showed, and it doesn’t look as though the arguments against GE salmon will stand up, either. Let’s examine them.

One complaint against the salmon is that it endangers consumers’ “personal health,” that it “could cause human allergies,” and that it’s been approved based on “insufficient safety testing.” In the case of GE plants, these scary what-if arguments are unfalsifiable, based on speculation about chemical properties and ever-expanding demands for longer study periods and bigger samples. The GE salmon was initially submitted for FDA approval 20 years ago. The agency declared it safe in 2010 and then spent another five years reviewing objections. Thursday’s statement says the FDA has concluded that the salmon is “safe to eat” and is “as nutritious as food from other non-GE Atlantic salmon.” It also says the genetic change is “safe for the fish itself.”

A second worry is that the salmon could breed with other species and endanger “wild fish populations and ecosystems.” In a statement from Alaska’s congressional delegation, Sen. Lisa Murkowski calls the salmon a “science experiment” and a threat to “the health of Americans and the sustainability of our fisheries.” A press release from Friends of the Earth quotes a fish company owner, who says:

There were over 250 million wild salmon harvested in Alaska and Puget Sound this year. Why should we put this sustainable resource at risk for the benefit of a few multinational corporations who will, sooner or later, introduce GE salmon into their floating feed lots? Americans will be eating synthetic salmon, thinking they are receiving the nutritional benefits of wild salmon.

The FDA’s statement addresses this concern. It says that under restrictions imposed by the agency, the GE salmon “would not have a significant environmental impact because of the multiple and redundant measures being taken to contain the fish and prevent their escape and establishment in the environment.” The fish are all female and sterile, and they would be grown in landlocked tanks, which would be government-inspected.

But it’s also worth noting that the allegation about “a few multinational corporations” (along with the insinuation about “nutritional benefits”) is bogus—the company behind the salmon, AquaBounty, has 21 employees—and that this bogus charge is coming from the salmon fishing industry. Murkowski and her Alaska colleagues are defending that industry. So this isn’t a fight between environmentalists and multinationals. It’s a fight between a well-represented trade lobby and a small innovator. That’s another lesson to take from the debate over GE crops: Look for commercial motives on both sides.

A third objection to the salmon is that “people don’t want to eat it.” Friends of the Earth notes that “75 percent of respondents to a recent New York Times poll said they would not eat genetically engineered salmon.” This is an odd argument to hear from people who insist that science, not public opinion, should decide policy on matters such as climate change.

A fourth criticism is that the FDA isn’t requiring the salmon to be labeled as a genetically modified organism. Food and Water Watch says this omission violates “consumers’ fundamental right to know how our food is produced.” But the FDA, in its statement, says it can require labels on GE food only “if there is a material difference—such as a different nutritional profile—between the GE product and its non-GE counterpart. In the case of the AquAdvantage Salmon, the FDA did not find any such differences.”

In the context of GE crops, the “right to know” argument is often used simply to stigmatize the GE product. By slapping a label on the fish, anti-GMO activists can scare away all the ill-informed people who (as illustrated in the Times poll) say they wouldn’t eat such a thing. In the case of GE salmon, the activists are going further. Friends of the Earth says:

To avoid confusion in the marketplace, and ensure the consumer’s right to know, we are asking grocery stores, seafood restaurants, chefs and seafood companies to demonstrate their commitment to sustainably produced seafood and consumer choice by joining our Pledge for GE-Free Seafood, a commitment to not knowingly purchase or sell genetically engineered salmon or other genetically engineered seafood should it come to market.

That’s not a campaign to label the salmon. It’s a campaign to deny you access to the salmon. The FDA’s approval allows AquaBounty to ship the salmon to the United States from its production facility in Panama, once production is geared up. But the company needs partners to sell the fish here, and that’s where the anti-GMO movement is setting up a blockade. According to Friends of the Earth, “More than 60 grocery store chains representing more than 9,000 stores across the U.S. have made commitments to not sell the GMO salmon, including Safeway, Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, and many others.”

Are these companies and environmentalists doing you a favor? Probably just the opposite. In Slate’s previous investigation of GMOs, we found that many of the arguments made against GE crops would have applied more directly to non-GE crops—but that the anti-GMO movement concealed this double standard. That seems to be the case with GE salmon as well. To begin with, because the GE salmon has a gene that makes it respond more effectively to growth hormone, it reaches mature weight more quickly than other farmed salmon (1½ years, as opposed to three years) and requires less feed. AquaBounty says the savings in feed is 25 percent. As the company observes, this is good for the environment, because “it requires less wild fish to be converted into salmon feed.”

AquaBounty claims that its landlocked water-control system “allows for removal of wastes (sludge) and recycling of greater than 95 percent of the water used.” The company also envisions “land-based facilities close to major metropolitan areas” so that fish can be delivered to market more quickly and efficiently, arriving fresher and with “a carbon footprint that is 23 to 25 times less” than conventional salmon.

As AquaBounty points out, the U.S. presently imports more than 95 percent of its salmon. Much of this cargo arrives by air from Chile and Norway. That’s a lot of fuel. Replacing airlifted ocean salmon someday with local land-farmed salmon might be bad for the Alaskan fishing industry, but it’s a net gain for the planet. It might also be good for the oceans. “Many of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at their maximum sustainable yield while some are in danger of collapse,” AquaBounty notes. “By providing a ready source of faster-growing fish, [GE salmon] can help reduce pressure on wild fish stocks.”

We shouldn’t accept everything this company says; it’s touting a product, after all. But we should scrutinize the conventional salmon industry just as carefully. What’s so safe or natural about depleting fisheries and flying in salmon from Norway? What’s so noble about insisting that 25 percent more fish be extracted from the ocean to feed your non-GE salmon? And what’s so progressive about suing the FDA to stop the approval of more genetically modified animals, such as disease-fighting mosquitoes or pigs that resist swine fever? Maybe, when self-styled environmentalists and “sustainable” grocery chains team up with salmon farmers and their Republican senators to block a better product, we ought to ask what’s going on. Something smells fishy.