The AquAdvantage salmon, a fast-growing salmon from AquaBounty Technologies, has become the first genetically-modified animal to gain approval for human consumption from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon has been genetically modified to include an rDNA construct composed of the growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon under the control of a promoter from another type of fish, an ocean pout. Salmon growth hormone is normally switched off during cold periods. Because the pout has evolved to live in near-freezing waters, its growth hormone production remains switched on year-round. Because of this, the modified salmon grows twice as fast as the wildtype salmon and can reach full size in 18 months rather than three years.
Notably, the FDA has ruled that the AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as the non-modified salmon, with a similar nutritional profile. Having considered the human health and environmental impacts there are a number of controls in place to prevent wild release, For example, the fish are reproductively sterile females and are raised in land-based facilities, not ocean pens, with multiple barriers to prevent the escape of eggs and fish, including nets to stop predators gaining access.
The wait for the AquAdvantage salmon has been a long one, starting in 1989, and costing over $60 million. AquaBounty Technologies filed an investigational new animal drug application in 1995, with the first regulatory study submitted in 2001. Following the FDA’s guidance for the evaluation of genetically engineered animals as veterinary drugs in 2009, AquaBounty completed its FDA submission. The FDA declared the salmon as safe to eat in 2010, and released a draft environmental assessment to the public in 2012, with the public comment period for the draft environmental assessment closing in April 2013. Even after its approval in November 2015, the AquAdvantage salmon is unlikely to have an easy time on the market, with environmental and anti-GM advocacy groups such as the Center for Food Safety groups attempting to block its sale.
AquaBounty claims that its salmon is better for the environment as it is raised in tanks, therefore protecting the marine ecosystem contamination. The process includes water recycling and waste treatment. The salmon require 25% less feed, reducing the amount of wild fish that have to be converted into salmon feed, and the carbon footprint is potentially up to 25 times less, as the fish can be farmed closer to major metropolitan areas in the US (although currently the eggs are hatched in Canada and the fish matured in Panama). Currently around 95% of the US’s Atlantic salmon is imported.
The approval of the AquAdvantage salmon could open the market for other genetically modified animal-based foods, such as animals producing milk that doesn’t sour as quickly, or meat that is lower in fat or higher in nutrients.