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FDA Approval of GE Salmon Paves Way for Sustainable Food Innovations

Josh Falzone
March 15, 2019

Earlier this week, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) finally approved the sale of genetically engineered (GE) AquAdvantage salmon in U.S. markets. The fish – produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty – is based on more than two decades of scientific research, making it the most studied line of Atlantic salmon.

It was the first GE animal deemed safe to eat by FDA after a 2015 agency review found that AquAdvantage salmon is not materially different from other Atlantic salmon and is just as safe and nutritious as non-GE salmon. In Canada, the salmon has been ordered and consumed by the tons since 2016. While FDA approval was long overdue, this milestone paves the way for future innovations that contribute to a more sustainable food supply.

Via Biology Fortified:

The regulatory process may have been lengthy, but one benefit is that we can be confident that the salmon is safe to eat and safe for the environment. We have two independent sets of regulatory processes to consider, one in Canada and one in the United States. While there are similarities in what the regulatory agencies are looking for, the laws and regulations were developed independently and the people in the agencies themselves are different, under different types of internal and external influences.

The agencies in both the United States and Canada independently found fast-growing genetically engineered salmon to be safe to eat and safe for the environment.

AquAdvantage salmon grows faster and can be grown in contained facilities close to population centers – making it more environmentally friendly to produce and easier to bring fresh to consumers. The increased demand for animal protein and growing world population are two reasons why GE products like AquAdvantage salmon are going to be important. Anastasia Bodnar, the policy director of Biology Fortified, underlined this in a recent article:

There will always be a place for wild-caught fish on our plates, just as there is a place for other speciality products like heirloom pork, wild mushrooms, and so many other wonderful things. But in a world with a growing population and a growing demand for nutritious fish like salmon, we can not rely only on wild stocks. Aquaculture is a necessity.

Wild-caught Pacific salmon are not able to meet demand, in part due to vulnerability to higher water temperatures related to climate change. In 2018, US west coast salmon fisheries along Washington, Oregon, and California requested fishery disaster assistance from the Department of Commerce due to commercial fishery failures in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Even as wild fisheries decline, demand for salmon is increasing. In 2016, the US imported ~339,000 metric tons of salmon, mostly farmed Atlantic salmon raised in cages in the ocean, as Richard Martin reports in Genetically engineered fish is not a matter of “if” but “when”. In 2018, the US imported 403,107 metric tons of all types of salmon, with a value of over $4.1 billion, (327,116 metric tons and $3.4 billion of Atlantic salmon alone) according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch rates indoor farmed salmon (raised the way genetically engineered salmon would be raised) as a “Best Choice.” Fish that grow faster will consume less feed, take less energy, decrease prices for consumers, and potentially provide a product with fewer parasites than ocean-raised fish. All this, with the potential to create jobs in the US with additional rearing facility locations, and to decrease reliance on ocean-based farms and open-air ponds that pose known risks to ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the lack of clarity in the regulatory process and an inefficient pathway to government approval can significantly delay the societal of benefits these products and future innovations.

Bio-based innovations, such as GE foods, can help us address many of the global challenges facing society today – climate change, a looming food crisis, malnourished populations, livestock diseases, just to name a few – and if we implement a transparent, science-based and risk-appropriate regulatory path, the United States and American companies can lead the way in developing biology-driven solutions to these challenges.