Is Genetically Engineered Food the Food of the Future?

By John McQuaid, "Is This the Food of the Future?," March/April 2011

Super salmon, enviropigs, blemish-free apples—What does the new wave of genetically engineered foods mean for our health and our planet?

Fishy Business

The FDA is at least within its comfort zone dealing with food safety. The same can’t be said about the environment. Salmon farming has degraded coastal environments in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Typically densely packed enclosures release nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal matter into marine ecosystems; infestations of sea lice, a parasite, have spread through aquaculture operations and into the wild; in Chile, a disease called infectious salmon anemia has recently decimated farmed populations. And when salmon escape from their enclosures and compete with or interbreed with wild populations, it can cause serious ecological problems.

AquaBounty plans to cultivate its salmon in land-based tanks in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in an undisclosed location in the highlands of Panama. It also puts its fertilized fish eggs through a procedure that makes them all female, and sterile. Those factors, plus the modest scale of the operations, should minimize the dangers of escape. But the company has much bigger plans: it’s told its shareholders that it intends to sell transgenic salmon eggs to buyers in other countries for large-scale commercial trials, positioning itself in the potentially lucrative role of the world’s only supplier.

Scaling up means more eggs, more fish and a higher possibility of escapes into unknown environments, says Anne Kapuscinski, Ph.D., a professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth College and editor of a book on assessing the environmental impacts of transgenic fish. One problem: studies show that the procedure to make the new fish embryos sterile is only 95 to 99 percent effective. If you’re dealing with millions of fish, as fish farms do, that could mean thousands of fertile, highly migratory fish with some potential to escape.

Next: The Future of Fish »

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