Frankenfish: The GMO PR Wars Continue

The PR battle over genetically modified food (and how/whether it should be labeled) just got fishier.

AquaBounty Technologies (ABT), a biotechnology company in Massachusetts, has developed a fish called the AquAdvantage Salmon, which grows twice as fast as its naturally-bred counterparts. Pending FDA approval, this flashily-named fish could be the first genetically-altered animal marketed for human consumption. We’ve previously discussed the fact that there is no law on the books requiring genetically modified foods to carry labels identifying them as such — and this makes matters even sketchier. Unless customers purchase organic or “free range” seafood, they won’t know whether the fish they’re buying is plain old farm-raised salmon or this new brand of “frankenfish.”

Here’s the quick (and extremely simplified) version of how the “AquAdvantage Salmon” engineering process works: Atlantic salmon don’t grow continuously because their growth hormones are only active for roughly three months per year. In order to “fix” this, ABT created a new gene construct that combines a regulator gene from a fish called an ocean pout with the growth hormones of Chinook salmon. This combination is then injected into the eggs of Atlantic salmon–and the resulting fish take 18 months to grow to the same size regular salmon spend three years achieving.

The company claims that the frankenfish is an answer to global food shortages thanks to its “shorter production cycles and increased efficiency of production”.

They say that it could advance the $86 billion farmed-fish business. They also say that it’s perfectly safe for humans to eat –in other words, there is no proof that eating an animal that has had its genome reinvented may be harmful. So far, the FDA seems to be all ears; it has already reviewed and accepted the studies submitted by ABT, and is now deciding whether to approve the fish for sale and human consumption.

Critics are far less convinced, and say that FDA-approval would be harmful to consumers, fish-farmers, and the environment. They are also quick to point out that the FDA doesn’t actually conduct its own tests on genetically engineered animals, relying instead on information provided by the company seeking approval. Furthermore, to the outrage of many critics, the FDA chose to regulate this fish as an “animal drug” rather than a food (which they can technically do because the DNA cocktail inserted into salmon eggs is defined as a drug). This means it’s not undergoing the standard evaluations that foods usually do. In other words, the evaluation process isn’t focused on the effects that eating the genetically modified fish could have on living, breathing humans.

If previous GMO battles are any indication (think Kashi, Cheerios, Proposition 37, etc.), we anticipate this story getting pretty ugly, especially if the FDA decides in favor of placing the AquAdvantage Salmon on America’s dinner tables. The movement opposing GMO food (and supporting regulation in labeling) is impassioned and growing, while the huge corporations on the other side of the battle boast enormous expendable income that can be (and has been) invested in sweeping the public with PR campaigns. For now, we’ll file this under “wait and see.”

What do you think, readers? Are you creeped out by Frankenfish, or is it just a more scientific version of an aquatic Turducken?