The 180

AquAdvantage salmon: Science journalist says we shouldn't fear 'Frankenfish'

Last month, the AquAdvantage salmon became the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. The FDA's decision to approve that fish has many people alarmed - in the United States, and in Canada too. But science journalist Emily Anthes says we should not fear the "Frankenfish."
AquaBounty says once its genetically-modified salmon is harvested it cannot be distinguished from regular salmon. (AquaBounty)

Last month, the AquAdvantage salmon became the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption. The FDA's decision to approve that fish has many people alarmed - and not just in the United States. Here in Canada, environmental groups are fighting the federal government in court over the approval of an application to manufacture AquAdvantage salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island.

But Emily Anthes, a science journalist and the author of "Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts," says we should not fear the "Frankenfish."

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

Why don't you think we should be afraid of the AquAdvantage salmon? 

Well, I'll start with the caveat that nothing is 100 per cent safe, nothing is 100 per cent guaranteed — and that's true whether we're talking about a genetically modified fish or food or a conventional fish or food. That said, this fish has been extensively tested, extensively studied — far better studied than most of the foods and fish and other things that appear on our dinner plate, and all the data we have so far suggests that these fish are safe. By safe, I mean several things. One is safe for the fish themselves. So this isn't talked about much, but sometimes genetic modification can cause animal pain and suffering, and this modification doesn't seem to hurt the fish at all. Safe also means appearing to be safe for human consumption, so it appears nutritionally equivalent to regular salmon, it doesn't seem to have any "toxins" or super-elevated levels of hormones, so everything that we know suggests it's safe to eat. And safe also means environmentally safe, and here I think are the most legitimate concerns about this salmon, the possibility that they might escape into the wild and either inter-breed with wild salmon or somehow overtake them, out-compete them for resources. And those are completely legitimate worries, but this company has been incredibly careful. It's instituted what the FDA calls "multiple redundant safety measures."

Setting aside the concerns about safety and about testing, what is the public benefit of a genetically altered fish? 

Wild salmon stocks are extremely depleted, the fish are dwindling in the wild, and so if you have this source of farmed salmon that grows faster, it could potentially — and again, this is if the fish get produced on a large enough scale — but it could alleviate some of the fishing pressure on wild salmon. 

You've written about other genetically modified animals that are either in the system now or have not made it to market for various reasons. Can you give us some other examples of GM animals that could have benefits for humanity? 

Well, some of what I think is the most intriguing is this field called "pharming" — and that's a combination of the word pharmaceutical and the word farming. What that is is genetically engineering an animal to make a pharmaceutical protein, or basically a medicine, in its own body. So there have been a couple of these animals approved, and actually the FDA just approved a new one this week — a transgenic chicken that lays eggs that contain medicine. The FDA has also approved goats and rabbits that produce these human medicines in their milk, and they tend to be a cheaper way to produce medicines that are difficult to produce in a laboratory and expensive to produce. 

So when people who are honestly curious ask you, "Are GM foods safe?" How do you answer them?  

That's a question I get asked a lot, and my first default answer is that that question is so broad that it cannot possibly be answered. I'm not here to say that every genetically modified food created will ever be safe. Genetic modification is a technique, it's a tool, and it's used in a lot of different ways for a lot of different products. And every product that comes up will be modified in a different way, with a different gene, for a different purpose. And so I think the only way to answer that question is to case by case, look at specific products, and say, is this modification made in this way for this purpose safe to consume? 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.