Genetically modified agriculture holds both the promise of drought- and virus-resistant crops and the peril of unraveling the natural food chain. But like it or not, it's one genie that's already out of the bottle.
The company has been seeking FDA approval since 1996. It got closer in September when the agency's Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee ruled that the transgenic fish are as safe to eat as any other Atlantic salmon. Still, the panel recommended that the government more rigorously assess the health and environmental effects before making a final decision. The FDA hasn't set a timeline, but if approved, it will take about two years before any fillets appear in supermarkets. Under the current application, Aquabounty would produce the eggs in Canada and then sell them to a land-locked fish farm in Panama owned by another company. If Aquabounty wanted to sell eggs to other farms producing fish for U.S. consumers, each would require its own FDA review.
Aquabounty considers its land-based approach more eco-friendly than the ocean nets used on most salmon farms. "Having fast-growing fish is a benefit to the environment," says research director John Buchanan, pointing out that transgenic salmon eat about 10 percent less than their traditionally farmed counterparts over the course of their lifetimes. An inland system also allows easier control of the waste and antibiotics coastal farms release directly into marine ecosystems, and reduces the likelihood of escapees. The saltwater would kill any Prince Edward Island hatchlings that somehow made it to the ocean, Buchanan says, and in Panama the water is too warm for runaways to survive. As an extra precaution, they're all engineered to be female and infertile. "As with any biological process, there's some uncertainty, but we think 99.8 percent or better are sterile," he says. "We've done a lot of studies looking at fish health and haven't found anything unusual. We didn't find any differences in fatty acids, minerals, amino acids. It's just a salmon that grows fast."
Critics contend that if Aquabounty successfully expands the salmon market, the growth will amplify the industry's negative aspects: Pollution from waste. Disease. Increased pressure on wild fish stocks used as feed.
Still, dominating the debate is the fear that the fish might escape and outcompete their wild counterparts. "Atlantic salmon populations have been in decline for a very long time, and there's always a concern domestic salmon will hurt wild populations," says Carl Safina, head of the Blue Ocean Institute. Every year an estimated two million salmon escape from North Atlantic farms alone. A multiyear study found that the hybrid offspring of farmed and wild salmon are shorter lived than their wild counterparts. Because they're raised in ocean nets, diseases and parasites are passed to wild stocks. The results can be profound. Overall, research shows that wild populations drop by half when associated with farmed salmon.
Safina argues it's impossible to guarantee that no salmon will escape, especially if more farms are built, but he doubts they could hack it outside. "Would they be able to breed? Are they capable of surviving in the wild? I'd tend to think the answer is no."
Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, questions more than the animals' fitness. "I was struck by how poor the science was overall. I'm shocked that they didn't look at disease resistance," he says of Aquabounty's 84-page report. "They used six to 12 salmon per study, which is just ridiculous. The testing Aquabounty did doesn't represent the population of salmon that consumers would eat." Furthermore, the panel consisted almost entirely of veterinarians. "To have only one scientist that has some fisheries expertise is really troubling," Gurian-Sherman says. He views the entire process as problematic, starting with the fact that the FDA is evaluating the fish under the new animal drug provision, which is designed to assess medications used to treat animals. "Our laws were not designed for this technology. Back in the Reagan and first Bush administration, instead of taking the time to do it right, the government just stuck genetically engineered organisms in wherever they thought they fit with existing laws."
Just as GE livestock is wending its way through the regulatory process, new transgenic crops are getting closer to the field--something farmer Ken Hartman regards with a mixture of optimism and impatience. His family has farmed in Waterloo, Illinois, since the 1850s. Today they grow corn, soybeans, and wheat on their midsize farm. Hartman isn't loyal to one seed company. "I see what works, and many of my crops are genetically modified," he shouts over the whir of a fan circulating air through towering soybean-filled silos. Biotech has provided him with some extra security. Bt corn kills the destructive corn borer, and he uses fewer chemicals than his father did, thanks to soybeans designed to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate (the generic form of Roundup, produced by many companies). "We used to use five or six different chemicals, but with Roundup you just need the one," Hartman says. "You can spray it on the plants without killing them, and you don't have to till as much."
Farmers spray glyphosate directly onto crops and surrounding weeds. The weeds die; the crop survives. This approach has had both advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, the increased reliance on Roundup has decreased overall herbicide use. In corn it dropped from 2.61 pounds per acre in 1995 to 2.06 in 2005. Spread over tens of millions of acres, that's a huge difference. It also has allowed farmers to cut back or even eliminate tilling, which curbs soil erosion and fossil fuel use.