A genetically engineered fillet: GMO salmon and future food

An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).
An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).Courtesy Hans-Petter Fjeld
Buckle up, Buzzketeers, because school is in session.

Did I just mix metaphors? No! You wear seatbelts in my school, because they help prevent you from exploding.

But you will probably explode anyway, because you are going to get taught. By JGordon. About the future.

Here’s your background reading: a GMO is a genetically modified organism—a living thing whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years (by selectively breeding them for desired characteristics), but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve gotten really fancy and fast about it.

While in the past, or what I like to call “the boring old days,” it took generations to breed crops that produced high yields, grew faster, or needed less water, we can now do that sort of thing in an afternoon. (Well, not really an afternoon, but these aren’t the boring old days, so we should feel free to use hyperbolic language.) We can insert genes from one plant into another, bestowing resistance to pests or poisons, or increasing the nutrition of a food crop.

Pretty cool, right? Maybe. GMOs tend to make people uncomfortable. Emotionally. They get freaked out at the thought of eating something that they imagine was created like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people prefer to eat stuff that was created the old fashion way: through SEX.

Once they’re in your tummy, GMOs are probably pretty much the same as any other food, really. However, there may be other reasons to approach them cautiously. Most organisms make a place for themselves in their environment, and their environment makes a place around them, and things tend to work pretty well together. But GMOs are brand new organisms, and it can be very difficult to tell how they’ll fit into the rest of the natural world. Will they out-compete “natural” organisms, and cause them to go extinct? Will they interbreed with them, and introduce new weaknesses to previously strong species? The repercussions of such events could be… well, very bad.

On the other hand, GMOs could provide food—better, more nutritious, easier to grow food—for people and places that really need it. And with global population expected to increase by a few billion people before it stabilizes, we’re going to need a lot of food.

Just like everything else, this stuff is complicated. Really complicated. But the issue isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable with it before it pushes ahead. Hence, our main event: GMO salmon.

You might not have devoted much mental space as of yet to mutant ninja salmon, but you will. See, transgenic salmon (i.e., salmon with genes from other animals) may be the first GMO animal on your dinner plate. Or whatever plate you use for whenever you eat salmon. If you even use a plate, you animal.

What’s the point of the GMO salmon? In the right conditions, they grow much faster than their normal counterparts, and they require about 10% less food to reach the same weight as normal salmon. The company responsible for them, AquaBounty, has been working on the project for more than 20 years. Inserted into a commonly farmed species, the Atlantic salmon, the final, successful combination of genes comes from Chinook salmon (a closely related, but much larger species) and the ocean pout (a slightly eel-like fish that can tolerate very cold water). While Atlantic salmon typically only grow during the summer, the new variation produces growth hormones year round, so they can grow to marketable size in about 60% of the time it would normally take, assuming they’re kept in water that’s at the right temperature, and given plenty of food year round.

While some people object to GMO foods on the grounds that the long-term effects from eating them are unknown, probably the more salient argument is the effect they might have on the natural world. A larger, faster growing species could put tremendous pressure on already stressed, wild Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty counters that in normal ocean temperatures, the GMO salmon would grow no faster than wild salmon. Also, all of the GMO salmon are female, and 95 to 99% of them are sterile (they can’t reproduce). And none of that should matter, because the salmon will be raised in tanks, away from the ocean.

Even if they are successfully isolated from wild salmon, opponents point out, that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the environment. See, salmon eat other fish, and it takes about 2 pounds of other fish to make one pound of salmon (according to this article on the GMO salmon). Large amounts of the kinds of fish people don’t eat are caught and processed to feed farm-raised salmon. If cheaper, fast-growing salmon cause the demand for salmon to rise, more food stock fish will have to be caught to supply the farms, putting pressure on these other species.

A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...
A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...Courtesy Dark jedi requiem
Then again, if the GMO salmon can be raised successfully and profitably in inland tanks, it could remove other negative environmental impacts. Aquaculture fish farms are typically in larger bodies of water, with the fish contained inside a ring of nets. The high concentration of fish in one area leads to more diseases and parasites, which can spread to nearby wild fish. Salmon farms also produce lots of waste, and it’s all concentrated in one spot. Supposedly, a farm of 200,000 salmon produces more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. (That’s what they say—it sounds like a load of crap to me, though.)

It’s a tricky subject, and anyone who says otherwise is being tricky (ironically). Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Food and Drug Administration will soon declare this particular GMO as officially safe to eat, and GMO salmon fillets could make their way to the supermarket in the next couple years. Even if the FDA didn’t approve the fish, however, that would only mean that it couldn’t be sold in the US—the operation could continue to produce fish for international markets.

GMO salmon are just the tip of the GMO animal iceberg (if you’ll forgive the iceberg analogy—I don’t mean to imply that they are going to sink us.) The next GMO in line for FDA approval, probably, is the so-called “enviropig,” a GMO pig with a greater capability to digest phosphorus. This should reduce feed costs, and significantly lower the phosphorus content of the manure produced by the pigs. That’s important because phosphorus from manure often leaches into bodies of water, fertilizing microorganisms, which, in turn, reproduce in massive numbers and suffocate other aquatic life.

As the human population grows and needs more food, genetically engineered plants and animals are going to become increasingly common. They might make the process of feeding and clothing ourselves easier and more sustainable. Or they might royally screw things up. Or both. So start thinking about these things, and start thinking about them carefully.

Er… so what do you think about GMOs? Are they a good idea? Are they a good idea for certain applications? Are they a bad idea? Why? Scroll down to the comments section, and let’s have it!

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

I said a few months ago and I'll continue to say this: I'll happily eat GMO salmon (assuming it tastes good, and why wouldn't it?) IF the producers of it can farm the fish cleanly (conventional ocean-pen fish farms are gross), can grow them in isolation (inland, in tanks), and they can feed them without putting pressure on wild stocks of fish. Sounds like they've got some of this nailed, and more of the details will come out when the FDA holds public hearings next week.

The first hour of MPR's "Midmorning" today was all about these fish. Check it out.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 8:56am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Considering it's been shown that it's the GE process that makes all GMO food damaging to your organs you'd have to be an idiot not to see that this same process will cause the same issues with Salmon. Enjoy!

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 9:05am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

I hesitated to publish this comment, both because of the "idiot" thing, and because it contains no actual information. "It's been shown" means nothing at all if you can't explain exactly what's been shown, by who, and how it was shown.

If any of us want to avoid being idiots, our decisions and opinions have to have some facts to back them up. So, please, if y'all come back, tell us where this information comes from! If it's real research, it would be a great contribution to this discussion! Otherwise...

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 10:55am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Well, Discover Magazine blogged ("GM Corn and Organ Failure: Lots of Sensationalism, Few Facts") about the study I believe Anonymous is referring to--"A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health".

It seems to me, based on the Discover analysis of the paper, as well as what I heard on MPR this morning, and the bit I understood from the FDA briefing packet on AquaBounty salmon, that the Vendomois study isn't a lot to hang your hat on. Certainly, it isn't strong enough to say that "GM foods cause organ damage."

There's a LOT of emotion around this topic. And all the studies are funded by groups with some stake in the outcome. Plus, companies like Monsanto have behaved so horribly when it comes to their intellectual property that it's easy to assume the worst.

Still, I stand by my earlier statement. The FDA says there is no difference -- NO difference -- that can been seen between the AquaBounty fish and regular ol' Atlantic salmon. And the GM fish, farmed according to the terms of their application to the FDA, will be better for the environment and potentially for many consumers. I'll eat 'em.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 11:49am
Shana's picture
Shana says:

The one point I can agree with is that I'm all for further study. The problem is that, at least in Europe, scientists and farmers are having trouble with their experiments being sabotaged. So studies that could reveal the true risks and benefits aren't completed. From my view, this doesn't exactly help the case that these peeps are trying to make.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 2:45pm
Laurie's picture
Laurie says:

This was the topic on MPR's Midmorning today. They also brought up the issue of labeling the GMO salmon. I agree that the environmental issues seem much more concerning than the health issues - but it is time for me to do a little reading.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 10:40am
Shana's picture
Shana says:

I would eat Frankenmeat and GMO salmon if their environmental impacts could be mitigated properly. I think that squeamishness over something being "unnatural" is irrational. Culture isn't natural, if by natural you mean not human-made. Cooking isn't natural by that measure, either. But aren't humans part of nature?

I figure this is like the Earth being round and people will get used to it when they figure out that it tastes fine and allows them to keep eating meat. At least in the West, I predict we'll continue to be as removed from meat production as possible, buying little gobs of it wrapped in plastic and colored red. Most of us rarely see the butchering process--that's scarier to me than GMO.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 11:31am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I am from the opposing camp. GMO's scare the beejeezes out of me. Sure the Atlantic Salmon and the Aquabounty fish are similar. They are the same phenotype but are not the same genotype. Thats what genetic engineering is all about, modifying an organisms DNA. The means we do it by, are what scare me the most. In order to modify the DNA we have to infiltrate the cell's nucleus, and what does that best? Bacteria and viruses, of course. We are injecting benign viruses into corn, soy, sugar beats, and now salmon but what happens when these organisms' DNA mutate? We can not say without a doubt that we will be able to control these organisms. In addition, long term studies have never been down on consuming GMO's. We are essentially the guinea pigs.

posted on Fri, 09/17/2010 - 2:19pm
Shana's picture
Shana says:

But wild organisms also mutate, potentially in harmful ways. So I don't really see the point in that as a criticism of GM. We've been modifying plant and animal DNA through breeding for thousands of years--that's how we got corn, wheat, cows, sheep, etc to be the way they are now. And our bodies are already full of benign (and not-so-benign) viruses and bacteria. Some of the anti-gmo stuff begins to sound like sci-fi novel-inspired sensationalism.

Actually, the phenotype of those fish is different, too, because they grow differently.

In terms of control--it's scarier to me that there are things like overfishing and pollution that we could control but don't. There are all kinds of things in nature that we can't control...not sure they're worth worrying about other than getting out of the way when possible.

posted on Fri, 05/13/2011 - 9:18am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Here's an article from Time on why farm-raised fish—even GMO farm-raised fish—are probably a very good idea, at least for the sake of biodiversity. The most immediate threat to a huge number of marine species isn't climate change, or its associated ecological issues, it's over-fishing. According to a study cited in the article, something like 90% of ocean life forms could collapse by the middle of the century, thanks in part to over fishing. The author argues that any advances that make fish farming more viable, perhaps including GM fish, are a good thing, because they remove pressure from wild populations. We have to be careful about the effects of these advances, but we also have to remember what the consequences could be if we continue to draw upon wild fish in such an unsustainable way.

(Good looking out, Liza.)

posted on Tue, 09/21/2010 - 2:01pm
darilyn's picture
darilyn says:

whether people will or will not eat GMO fish is not really the concern. the problem is how are you so sure that all these salmon will not run out? after the years... decades...sure... everuthing that we are doing will damage our children, our children's children, and even there children's future. scientists should be able to find a stable food that we can be sure wont run out

posted on Sat, 10/09/2010 - 5:45pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

(This might be a technology correction that needs to be made on the Science Buzz website??--
When I search on the Science Buzz website for "cmore," a short list comes up, including this entry:
"Biological Populations Change Over Time | Science Buzz - Homepage ..."
but it links to this post: "," which is about genetically-engineered salmon, and doesn't have anything to do with cmore.)


posted on Tue, 10/12/2010 - 1:30pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

"Biological Populations Change Over Time" is one of the preset categories Buzz posts can be assigned to.

One of the posts in the "Biological Populations Change Over Time" category is also tagged "CMORE," which is why the "Biological Populations Change Over Time" link comes up when you search Science Buzz for CMORE.

The address you clicked on ( isn't for just the CMORE-tagged post, but for all of the "Biological Populations Change Over Time" posts, and the GMO salmon article happens to be the most recent one, which is why it was at the top of the page. If you scroll down, you'll see the article with the CMORE tag (I think it's about an ocean census.)

It's kind of a weird, round about thing, and it happened because of the overlapping CMORE tag and the "Biological Populations Change Over Time" category. Thanks for pointing that out, though. Hope you eventually found something interesting anyway!

posted on Tue, 10/12/2010 - 2:49pm
Dave Ventresca's picture
Dave Ventresca says:

Our world's oceans are in trouble! Conventional fishing methods are literally robbing the oceans of the life-sustaining systems that have evolved over billions of years of Earth's history. It is vitally important that we dramatically reduce our demand on the oceans before it's too late. Did you know that the ocean produces most (nearly 2/3rds) of the oxygen we breath? Well... as we overfish the ocean, we decrease the capacity for it to produce oxygen for us, let alone support life. If the ocean dies, we will follow... Sad, but true. What can you do? STOP BUYING SEAFOOD FROM UNSUSTAINABLE SOURCES. Ask your grocery store to carry sustainable sea-food. Ask them over and over! As Michael Pollan would say, 'Vote with your fork'. Meaning, buy the healthy, local, sustainable goods that your grocery store carries! Over time this will bring prices down and encourage grocery stores to continue choosing suppliers that sustainably source their goods!

posted on Tue, 11/30/2010 - 5:21pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Genetically Altered foods are OK, but you have to put them into majority. GO ORGANIC!

posted on Fri, 01/28/2011 - 11:05am
Vikrum's picture
Vikrum says:

GMO are a still devoloping consept wait a few years and they will be the next big thing
gmos have alot of the advantages
such as

1. Pest resistance: Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods such as B.t. corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.

2. Herbicide tolerance: For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example, Monsanto has created a strain of soybeans genetically modified to be not affected by their herbicide product Roundup.

3. Disease resistance:There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases.

4. Cold tolerance: Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings. An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. With this antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings.

5. Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance: As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.

6. Nutrition Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of "golden" rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A). Since this rice was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a non-profit organization, the Institute hopes to offer the golden rice seed free to any third world country that requests it. Plans were underway to develop golden rice that also has increased iron content.

7. Pharmaceuticals: Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.

8. Phytoremediation: Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.

posted on Thu, 05/12/2011 - 11:00am
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Here's another take on the GMO salmon, republished by Salon.

The author immediately acknowledges that he has long been against the use/consumption/farming/whathaveyou of genetically engineered fish (the AquaBounty salmon in particular), but he goes beyond the usual "it's not 'green'" argument here, stating that, for several reasons, the genetically modified salmon just isn't necessary.

I'm not sure I completely agree with couple of his points: he says that there are still tons of wild salmon out there, and he points to the fact that we're catching more salmon than ever as evidence. There may well be lots of salmon out there, and their population might be coping just fine with our annual harvests, but I don't think that "we catch more and more all the time, so they must be fine!" is a great argument. It seems a little backwards, actually.

He also says that farming salmon is already pretty efficient without the use of genetic engineering. Ok. But he says part of the reason for this is selective breeding programs. Which ... I hate to split hairs, but ... that's kind of genetic engineering. Genetic modification, anyway. I guess Aquaberry's methods are just weirder, and that's why we don't like them?

Still, though, it's an interesting piece, with a few new arguments in it. Check it out if you want to get deeper into the topic. (Again, you can find it here.)

posted on Thu, 06/02/2011 - 10:25am

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