A genetically modified salmon will become the first genetically modified food animal to be released for sale in the United States, according to its maker, AquaBounty, possibly ushering in an era of steaks and chops from DNA-modified creatures.
In the United States, a number of genetically modified animals have been approved or cleared for sale. There’s the GloFish neon with additional fluorescence, which you can find at a pet store. And there are a handful of goats, rabbits, and chickens designed to make medicine in their milk or eggs.
But so far, only one genetically modified animal has been approved for food in the United States. The animal, an Atlantic salmon designed to grow faster on fish farms, took 20 years to gain a nod from regulators, then was held back for four more years due to a dispute over ‘labeling. AquaBounty predicted it would be ready to sell salmon to U.S. distributors by this month.
Aquabounty’s long (and expensive) journey to the market has been daunting. Who wants their product to be denounced as a frank fish by environmental activists or labeled as “bioengineered”? Yet now that the fish has gained approval, it can be an “extremely important” signal to others working with genetically modified animals, says Jack Bobo, a former member of the company’s board of directors. “All research on GMOs in animals has practically ceased for 20 years,” he says. “There was no reason to do it until something was approved.”
Aquabounty salmon is transgenic–he has a gene from a different species (a chinook salmon) stuck on. Now, however, with new gene-editing tools, researchers have better ways to introduce genetic changes and a wider range of possible improvements. Already, gene editing has led to experimental pigs that are resistant to viral infections and dairy cattle whose spots have turned from black to gray, to thrive in hot climates.
Today, MIT Technology magazine also reports on a UK company called Genus, which is pursuing the largest genetic modification project to date in large farm animals. He uses new gene editing tools to create thousands of pigs immune to some common and deadly viruses that affect bark gourds.
Animal behavior is also on the table. In 2019, Japanese researchers attempted to modify a gene in tuna to slow them down. Tuna can swim at 40 miles per hour (about seven times faster than Michael Phelps) and often die on sushi farms after collisions with walls.
The path to your dining table remains difficult for these innovations. Campaigners will criticize them for allowing intensive breeding, and it is true that many genetic innovations have been designed to solve problems created by crowding animals, such as disease.
And the US agency that oversees genetically modified food animals, the Food and Drug Administration, is no child’s play. The FDA considers changes in the genome of an animal to be a veterinary drug. That means he wants proof that the modifications do what their makers say and that they are safe, for animals and for us.
Ultimately, however, it will be consumers and food marketers who will decide how gene editing plays out in the fish and meat aisles. Will people buy salmon chops or pork chops with labels saying they are genetically modified? The arrival of Aquabounty salmon on the market could help answer the question. The company is sorry to have to use such labels and claims its fish are as good as anyone’s. Yet, as Bobo says, “you better be transparent and hope people don’t really care.”