By: Oliver Milman

The production and consumption of genetically engineered salmon has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, marking the first time that a genetically modified animal product has been cleared for sale in the US.

The FDA said that it has approved the salmon, produced by Massachusetts-based firm AquaBounty Technologies, “based on sound science and a comprehensive review” that found the product was safe for US consumers. While GM food such as soy and corn are already available, this will be the first engineered animal product to be approved for sale.

The federal regulator has stipulated that the salmon may only be raised in land-based, secure hatcheries in Panama and Canada, which it will monitor. However, the US will be off limits for the breeding and raising of salmon. 

This week, a Canadian conservation group launched a legal bid to halt the production of salmon in the country, claiming that it risks a “huge live experiment” with wild salmon if the modified fish somehow escape into the environment. 

AquaBounty’s salmon are modified for fast growth with genes from two other fish. The company, which has attempted to get its product approved in the US since 1995, claims that the salmon will grow twice as quickly as wild salmon and will need 25% less feed to reach full size.

Ron Stotish, chief executive of AquaBounty, said the company’s salmon is a “game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats. 

“Using land-based aquaculture systems, this rich source of protein and other nutrients can be farmed close to major consumer markets in a more sustainable manner.”

Last year, a group of scientists wrote to Barack Obama to urge him to allow GM animals for consumption, citing concerns over food security and climate change. Proponents of GM food argue that engineered protein requires less feed and therefore lower greenhouse gas emissions to produce.

Val Giddings, senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the organisation is “happy to see policymakers embracing the kind of innovation that is central to promoting human health and ecological sustainability.”

In 2010, the FDA determined that GM salmon posed “reasonable certainty of no harm” to consumers. This was followed by a 2013 assessment by the Canadian government that found a “negligible” risk to the country’s environment from the process.

However, environmental and consumer groups have raised concerns over the advance of GM salmon, with Consumers Union telling the Washington Post that the FDA’s approval was based on “inadequate science and unfounded assumptions”. Opponents claim there is a real risk the salmon could escape from hatcheries and breed with wild salmon, as the sterilisation process has a 5% failure rate.

Originally Published: The Guardian