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GMO Atlantic salmon a 'risky venture,' says Guelph professor

A professor of agriculture from the University of Guelph calls the first genetically modified animal product for human consumption a "risky venture."

The P.E.I. plant producing the large salmon should expect consumer backlash, says Andreas Boecker

A comparison of the GMO salmon versus a wild (bottom) or farmed salmon (top). (AquaBounty)

The first genetically-modified animal product for human consumption — which will be produced in Prince Edward Island — is a "risky venture," according to an agriculture expert at the University of Guelph.

"People might feel that the technology of genetic engineering is getting one step closer to mankind, but from a scientific perspective, there's no real difference in that," professor Andreas Boecker told CBC Mainstreet Friday. 

Genetically-modified Atlantic salmon, produced by AquaBounty out of P.E.I., was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. Thursday.

Professor Andreas Boecker says AquaBounty should expect backlash from consumer groups and anti-GMO groups. (Supplied by University of Guelph)

The move was promptly criticized by the region's Ecology Action Centre  and an Islander group called "Say No to Frankenfish," both of which opposed the genetically modified organisms, known commonly as GMOs. 

The aquaculture company has a plant in Bay Fortune on the eastern side of the Island. It says the approval is a positive move and will provide a good supply of a nutrient-rich product close to major markets.

Backlash will be 'immediately felt'

However, the company should expect criticism from consumer groups and anti-GMO groups, Boecker said.

"The backlash would be immediately felt for anybody in the supply chain," he said.

The risk assessment process will take a while to reach a consensus in Canada, said Broeker. He also expects Europe to take more time to embrace the new product. 

From a scientific perspective, the technologies used are similar, he said, but when dealing with live animals, there are different environmental risks.

This salmon is farmed Atlantic, but from a land-based farm. (Supplied by SeaChoice)

"They can escape, for example, into the wild," Broeker said. "They are more agile than plants, so that might be an additional perspective on the environmental risk." 

GMO salmon can grow twice as large

As a result, part of the approval is tied to producing the salmon in confined tanks to reduce risk. Also, only sterile female salmon will be genetically modified, he said. 

The new GMO salmon are expected to grow twice as quickly as wild or farmed Atlantic salmon, AquaBounty has said.

That raises questions about the welfare of the animal and the quality of the product, from the consumer's perspective, although it could make it more affordable, Boecker said.

No label required

"It's an individual consumer's decision, but I think a company would not have invested such a long time and the resources if they couldn't provide a benefit to the producers," he said.

As with GMO crops, making an informed choice will be an issue for consumers as there is no requirement to label the salmon as modified, Boecker said. 

Still needs approval to eat in Canada

It will take another two years before the fish can hit grocery store shelves.

"That might give some time to think about ways of making this more apparent," Boecker said.

Environment Canada previously approved the production of genetically modified salmon eggs in P.E.I., which the Ecology Action Centre is trying to appeal in federal court.

AquaBounty has asked Health Canada for permission to sell the fish as food in Canada.

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