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Fast-Growing Salmon Causes a Splash

By: Matt Thoman   10/7/10
 
Whether grilled, fried, baked or broiled, Salmon, an oily-fish present in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is one of the most widely consumed species of fish in the world.  As an important source of protein, vitamin D and Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, the numerous health benefits the fish provides, as well as its appealing taste, have positioned it as a staple food in many diets.  As the quantity of salmon available from natural stocks decline, farm-raised fish have become an increasingly important source in supplying the market.  Continued innovation in the production of salmon has led to the creation of a "Genetically Engineered" (GE), fast-growing version of the fish that is able to reach market size (2 kilograms) in around half the time of wild salmon.  If granted final approval from the FDA, GE salmon would become the first commercially available fish of its kind, and would likely open the door for other GE animals to enter the food supply.  Although the FDA recently indicated that the fish is safe for human consumption, it has not been approved yet. Detractors of the decision have raised concerns as to the possible safety risks that they believe the salmon may pose.

What is Genetically Engineered?
So what exactly does "Genetic Engineering" mean?  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Genetic Engineering  allows for selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, and also between non-related species."  GE technology has been used to create vaccines, disease and insect resistant crops, and, in the case of salmon, to increase the speed of growth.  GE falls under the large umbrella of food biotechnology, but is also a rather broad designation itself.  The salmon currently at issue fall within a subset of GE foods known as "transgenic".  Transgenic technology is the science of transferring genetic material from one species in order to create specific traits in a different species.  In the case of the fast-growing salmon, genes from the pout fish were combined with the chinook salmon, giving it the ability to grow in cold water, and thus decreasing the time needed for the fish to reach market weight.

GE Salmon Potential Benefits
There are many possible benefits to the introduction of fast-growing salmon.  If producers of farm-raised salmon are able to supply more of the fish than previously possible, it will create a greater opportunity for consumers to enjoy the many healthy nutrients that salmon provides.  Additionally, less stress would be placed on wild sources of the fish, allowing for natural stocks to rebound.  Innovations in food production, such as biotechnology, make sustainable food production possible by producing more output while using fewer resources.  This is an increasingly important criterion for food production as the population grows, and as more of a focus is placed on protecting the environment than has been in the past.  Similar applications of biotechnology can also improve the quality of food and increase safety.

GE Salmon Questions
As with the introduction of any new technology, critics have voiced concerns.  The FDA has responded to safety concerns regarding IGF-1, by stating that levels of the growth hormone present are present in such small quantities that it will not negatively impact human health.  In addition, experts have not found any basis for concerns regarding the potential introduction of allergens in the fast-growing salmon.  Another issue that has been cited by detractors is that the GE salmon could disrupt eco-systems if it were to escape into the wild.  However, the developers of the technology have stated that, if approved, the salmon would only be raised on inland farms posing no risk of escape into coastal waters. 
 
As the human population continues to evolve and grow, so will the technology that we use to meet our changing and increasing needs.  It will be important to continue to leverage technologies that will allow us to produce an abundance of food while also preserving our limited natural resources.