TIME Diet/Nutrition

7 Things You Need To Know About GMO Salmon

GM Salmon Gets Go Ahead For Human Consumption
Barcroft Media—Barcroft Media via Getty Images Tanks containing AquaBounty's genetically modified salmon in Waltham, Mass.

The FDA just approved the first genetically modified animal that people will eat. While the agency says it’s safe, not everyone is convinced. Here’s what you need to know

It’s taken nearly 20 years but AquAdvantage salmon will soon be served in restaurants and appearing at your local fish counter. AquAdvantage is a man-made breed of salmon that’s part Atlantic salmon and part Chinook salmon with a few genes from other fish thrown in that rev up the animal’s growth processes so they’re active most of the year, as opposed to only part of the year. With these changes, AquaAdvantage’s developer, AquaBounty Technologies, says the salmon grow at twice the rate of farm-raised fish.

The approval by FDA is controversial and contested. Here’s what you need to know for now.

Is the genetically modified salmon safe to eat?

The Food and Drug Administration says it “rigorously evaluated extensive data submitted by the manufacturer, AquaBounty Technologies, and other peer-reviewed data…” and determined that it “is safe to eat by humans and animals.”

Most studies on animals that are fed genetically modified foods don’t show serious health effects, though there are a few that hint at potential harm to organs like the kidneys, liver and heart, as well as increased risk of cancers and early death in these animals.

Will I know which salmon is genetically modified and which are not?

Not necessarily. There is no regulation requiring that AquaAdvantage fish be labeled as being genetically altered fish. Any labeling would be voluntarily by the companies’. The FDA issued two recommendations asking manufacturers to voluntarily label their products, along with guidance about how to note the genetic changes.

Some groups are calling for mandatory labeling. Scott Faber, executive director of a campaign called Just Label It said this in a statement: “The decision to approve GMO salmon without a mandatory disclosure is yet another example of how FDA’s outdated policy keeps consumers in the dark.”

Is it the first approved GMO animal approved for sale in the United States?

Yes. But up to 80% of the processed foods sold in the U.S. contain GMOs, mostly from plant crops. Corn, soy, potato and even some apple crops are genetically engineered to either produce more or to resist insects and drought. (See here for a chart of these crops.)

Why are some people against GMOs?

There are three major concerns about changing genes in wild plants or animals. First, the alterations could change the plant or animal in ways that could be harmful for people who eat them. The changes could also harm the plant or animal and make them less fit to survive. Finally, on a broader level, introducing new hybrid species could alter the environment in unpredictable and potentially worrisome ways. ‘

In the salmon’s case, if the genetically altered fish were to make its way into rivers and oceans, it could outcompete the wild salmon, which is smaller, for food and breeding grounds.

What if the GMO salmon gets into the wild somehow?

For now, AquaBounty says that’s unlikely to happen since it plans to grow AquAdvantage in land-based tanks. The company will also use only female fish that are sterile so breeding in the wild is also unlikely.

But some environmentalists point out to NPR that the company’s egg production facility, on Prince Edward Island, is near an estuary that feeds into the ocean and that the fish will be allowed to mature in a location in Panama that is located near a river, making escape a remote but nevertheless real possibility.

Will changing the genes harm the fish?

The data isn’t clear on this yet. While AquaBounty’s president once told Reuters that AquAdvantage is “an Atlantic salmon in every measurable way,” studies by researchers who have compared genetically modified salmon to their wild counterparts have shown that the fish behave differently. The genetically altered fish tend to eat more to support their growth-promoting genes, and prefer spending time near the surface of the water alone, as opposed to swimming in groups. They also show some reduced immune functions.

Where will the genetically modified salmon be sold?

AquaBounty says it may take as long as a year to raise enough fish to supply supermarkets. But certain retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Aldi, have said in the past that they will not sell the genetically modified fish.

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