This week, the US Food and Drug Administration will likely decide that AquaBounty is safe for you to buy and eat. Aquawhat? AquaBounty is a salmon – a genetically engineered anti-freeze powered Hulk salmon that will change the future of what you eat
Genetically modified food is not new in the US. The odds are pretty good that you’ve eaten it recently, if not today – almost all of the soybeans and corn grown in the US sprout from seeds modified to resist pesticides. Genetically modified food is in your cereal, your soda, and your stomach – but only if it’s growing from the ground. The FDA’s decision is set to change all that, ushering in a new era of food science. Harder, better, faster and stronger creatures of all kinds could be heading to your supermarket (and plate) soon.
But back to the salmon. The AquaBounty is modified by introducing two foreign genes from two other fish. Genetically modified food works by finding desirable traits in one animal, and sticking them in the other for a hybridised genetic sequence – a process known as “recombinant DNA”. With AquaBounty, the first of two genes its designers had their eyes on is a powerful growth hormone from the Chinook salmon, boosted by pairing it with a gene from the obscure ocean pout, which triggers an always-on biological antifreeze that keeps the salmon growing during the winter. The result is a superfish that never stops growing – reaching full, bulky maturity in 18 months instead of three years. Larger fish that grow faster means more money for farmers, and more food for fish fans. Right? Well, it’s not that simple.
On the other end of a debate are an irate league of scientists and food safety advocates who aren’t sold on the entire concept of GM food – to the extent of calling out the FDA on sloppy, biased science. These sceptics worry about a whole host of potential problems – will GM salmon cause new, unseen allergies and sickness in humans? Will they evolutionarily outcompete and snuff out their non-modified cousins? And will we even know what we’re exposing ourselves to? – the FDA has already ruled that GM salmon won’t need to be labelled as such. The FDA has further concluded, they claim, that we have nothing to worry about health-wise, though critics characterise their testing methodology as laughable, using only a dozen or so sample fish to test check for potential medical complications in humans. Compare this to the EU, where opposition to GM food is so intense that only a dozen or so have been approved in the past decade – a process requiring multinational consensus, not a small panel of experts.
Whether the FDA or its critics are correct, the precedent here will be a significant one. The first step onto our plates will be the most difficult to achieve, and once superfish are taken as a given, the rest of the zoo won’t be far behind. When fish that are named by trademarks instead of taxonomy are commonplace, it will have changed a fundamental part of eating. Companies and R&D labs, rather than oceans, may someday be the source of our food – a shift that companies like AquaBounty have fought hard for, spending $US60 million and and a decade to develop the salmon. On paper, the benefits of GM animals are clear. But like anything else that ends up in our bodies, rigorous deliberation is necessary – maybe enough until both sides are quiet and content.