Why Worry about Genetically Modified Salmon?

In the movie Jurassic Park, a tale of genetic engineering gone bad, scientists arrive on an island to find that an all-female population of resurrected dinosaurs may have found a way to breed. The following conversation ensues:

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?

Dr. Ian Malcom: No, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.Atlantic salmon
Atlantic salmonCourtesy Dan Taylor

As we find out later in the movie, the dinosaurs have indeed been breeding.

Salmon farmers tell us that a proposed population of genetically modified "super salmon" will be composed entirely of sterile females, making it impossible for them to mate, should they escape to the wild. Some consumers are fighting FDA approval of the fish as food and say consumers should be alerted to the fact that they are purchasing the genetically engineered fish (by way of labeling.)

Advocates of the super salmon claim the meat from the new super salmon is indistinguishable from that of their natural cousins. However, critics fear that the new “frankinfish” may pose danger to both consumers and to the environment.

Super salmon are Atlantic salmon that have had a gene (DNA) for a growth hormone normally made by Chinook salmon inserted into their genetic map. In addition, scientists have put some DNA from another ocean fish, called a pout, in front of the growth hormone gene to keep the fish’s body pumping out growth hormone all of the time.

They don’t get bigger than natural salmon, but they grow much faster. This creates a potential threat to wild salmon, should the modified salmon escape from fish farms. (They would potentially out-compete and out-breed their natural counterparts in the wild.)

Despite claims that super salmon will all be sterile females, one article I read mentioned that "a small percentage might be able to breed. They would be bred in confined pools where the potential for escape would be low.” Another stated that the FDA says that up to 5% of the eggs may be fertile.

Genetic engineering has resulted in many products that make people’s lives better, but we have to be aware of the danger it poses. Microbes, plants and animals can swap DNA and genetically modified organisms are already finding ways to invade the natural world.

Life finds a way, whether we want it to or not. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Cool post, KPS. I also wrote one on the Aquabounty salmon (and sort of on GMOs in general) a couple weeks ago. Here's the link.

I should point out that, in addition to being almost totally sterile ("almost," as you say, being a key word), the salmon will be raised in inland tanks. That should further lower the possibility that fertile eggs might escape into the wild to interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon, or to compete with them. (Although, the GE salmon shouldn't actually grow any faster than natural salmon outside the conditions of the farms.) That said, there's always a chance that the salmon might someday find their way into the wild, and however small a chance it is it should be taken seriously.

I'm sure there are examples of "nature finding a way" (pollen from GE crops finding its way into organic fields comes to mind*), but I'm not sure the link you provide in the second to last paragraph is one. That article is about weeds naturally developing a resistance to the pesticides that some crops have been engineered to tolerate. I don't believe there's any GMO gene exchange happening there—herbicide-resistant weeds are just being selected for by the conditions of their environment.

That's more like if GE salmon found their way into the wild, but wild salmon adapted to out-compete them. If anything, the resistant weeds are harming the current generation of GE crops. But that's something to take seriously too, because whether we like it or not, we rely on those GE crops.

That article does do a good job of pointing out the complexity of the GMO issue, though. As uncertain as we might be about the consequences some aspects of genetic engineering, it might have positive consequences too, like allowing erosion-preventing no till farming, or letting farmers use less-toxic herbicides and pesticides. (More on the ups and downs of that in this post.)

Tricky stuff, and it's going to come up more and more, so it's good to talk about it. Thanks for the post!

*I went to a short lecture this weekend, where the speaker briefly talked about GMO genes escaping GMO farms. He pointed out how there had been all these studies done on the economic effects of GMO corn, and how they had overwhelmingly been positive, except that none of the studies looked at what was happening on nearby farms. Pollen from the genetically-engineered crops can drift into farms that don't use GMO seeds, where it sometimes pollinates their plants. When the harvested crops are eventually tested, they sometimes contain GMO genes, meaning they can't be sold as organic, or to countries that prohibit GMO crops. Interesting.

posted on Thu, 10/07/2010 - 9:57am
bryan kennedy's picture

I've been a bit confused about the worry around GMO salmon myself. What's the worst case scenario from the human consumer health perspective? In other words, how could a human get sick from eating this GMO fish?

posted on Thu, 10/07/2010 - 10:50am
arthurb3's picture
arthurb3 says:

It could be a concern if the they excape and then begin to take over the ecosystem and cause other species to become extinct. Also, GM my have may increase risk of food allergies and such...

posted on Tue, 11/09/2010 - 3:24pm
James A. Randle's picture
James A. Randle says:

"I don't believe there's any GMO gene exchange happening there—herbicide-resistant weeds are just being selected for by the conditions of their environment."

We all know that GMO foods are really bad for our health. So i'm really in favor in labeling foods either it's GMO or organic in order for the consumers to see what they are buying.

posted on Tue, 05/08/2012 - 11:48pm

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