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There's Something Fishy About Genetically Engineered Salmon

Genetically Engineered Salmon

When it comes to genetic engineering, most of the attention in the UK has gone to crops and the global explosion of GE soy and maize cultivation. However, new technologies have allowed the creation of far more complex organisms. GE mosquitos and fish are now commercially viable and ready to enter the global markets.

At least 35 species of fish are currently being genetically engineered around the world, including trout, catfish, tilapia, striped bass, flounder, and many species of salmon.  These fish are being engineered for traits that allegedly will make them better suited for industrial fish farming, such as faster growth, disease resistance, larger muscles, and temperature tolerance.  

One example of these GE fish is GE AquAdvantage salmon…

GE Salmon comparison

Produced by UK-based AquaBounty, the AquAdvantage salmon incorporates the anti-freeze genes of ocean pout and the fast growing genes of the Chinook salmon into an Atlantic salmon. The foreign DNA strands reprogram the salmon’s metabolism: the chinook gene signals the manufacture of extra growth hormones, while the ocean pout gene keeps that internal hormone factory switched to “on” during the winter months, when ordinary salmon stop growing.

The effect is that the foreign genes accelerate the fish’s growth: a tiny fry grows to a 13-pound adult in two years—twice as fast as an ordinary farm-raised fish. Thus the fish can be farmed year-round, in any climate, and more production cycles squeezed into less time. However, while substantially larger, the nutritional benefit of the fish is considerably less.

AquAdvantage Nutrition Facts


Challenging the approval of this technology will require an international effort since this GE salmon is truly transnational. The British company will produce the fertilized eggs in Canada before shipping them to Panama to grow in land-based systems and then will be sold in US supermarkets.  

The environmental impacts would be considerable. While the salmon authorization is based on them being grown in a land-based system, if the genetically altered fish were to make its way into rivers and oceans, it could outcompete the smaller wild salmon for food and breeding grounds. The knock-on impacts on wild salmon and other wildlife could be devastating.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the salmon for sale in supermarkets in November 2015, while the Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency followed in May 2016. Although the salmon hasn’t yet hit US shelves and certain retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Aldi, have said that they will not sell the genetically modified fish, sales began in Canada earlier this year.

However, despite its approval in the US, there is significant opposition to GE salmon.  

Senator Murkowski of Alaska is challenging the validity of this “frankenfish” and has recently introduced a new bill “The Genetically Engineered Salmon Labeling Act”, which requires any salmon that is genetically engineered to be labelled as such.

Currently, the US, has no formalized requirement to label GE fish (or any GE products) with clear on-package labels. While the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act should create a US labelling standard by July 2018, there has been no movement on the issue since President Trump came to office. Even if it was to be implemented, the law allows companies to decide whether to disclose GE food on the package or merely on their website. Senator Murkowski’s bill aims to increase transparency in the food system by requiring on-package GE labels.

Equally important, her bill also requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to ensure a third-party independent scientific review of the Food and Drug Administration’s environmental assessment for all GE finfish, including GE salmon, for human consumption.

Despite AquaBounty being a UK-company, GE fish is not approved for sale in the UK nor the EU. Given that a 2014 YouGov poll found that 46% of adults had negative views about GE, it seems unlikely that GE salmon would find a sufficient market with the UK public who have roundly rejected GE foods.

That said, as Britain prepares to leave the EU, future trade deals are being negotiated that threaten to open the UK market to GE products including AquAdvantage salmon. It’s critical that the public continues to raise their rejection of GE to government and raise awareness of the potentially damaging impacts of GE on the environment, on human health and on small producers.

For more information about genetic engineering in the UK and recent GE developments around the world, read our campaign page to Stop Genetic Modification