Frankenstein-Fish on Your Dinner Plate?

by Katie on February 20, 2013

It seems that we hear about genetically engineered (GE) foods all the time lately. As more and more foods are modified in the lab, activist and consumer groups continue to raise safety concerns and push to label such items in the products we buy. So why care about GE salmon if we are eating GE corn all the time? Well, right now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering approving  GE salmon for human consumption. If this proposal is approved, AquaBounty Technologies, the company creating the GE fish often called Frankenstein Fish by critics, will have the rights to grow and sell the first ever genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption!

What is a GMO?

A GMO is any organism that is created using genetic manipulation techniques. Using these lab techniques, new genes can be added or existing genes can be removed thus allowing the scientist to control what traits the organism will exhibit. Humans are no stranger to playing god when it comes to the environment and organisms around them and as such, GMOs have been around since the 1970’s. and commercialized since the 1980’s. This includes organisms used in research, for food crops and production of pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals such as insulin and even enzymes for laundry detergent.

The GE salmon from AquaBounty, officially known as AquaAdvantage salmon, can reach market weight twice as fast as wild salmon thanks to a growth hormone gene borrowed from the Chinook salmon species. This means higher production efficiency for AquaBounty but for the rest of us this means serious ethical, environmental, and health concerns.

Are GE salmon a good idea?

Concerns over GMOs raised for consumer use fall mainly into a few categories: risk of ecological damage, safety for human health, and animal welfare issues.

Ecological Impact or Nature Finds a Way

Although AquaBounty claims that its GE fish are mostly unable to reproduce and will be kept in inland tanks far from wild populations, its important to note that it wasn’t an exaggeration when the movie Jurassic Park assured us that ‘nature finds a way’.  If this proposal is accepted, AquaBounty will be just the beginning. Plans for GE tilapia, and GE trout are already in the pipeline but the real danger is in the new precedent for approving future GE agricultural animals. It is not a big leap to envision a future in which AquaBounty is allowed to sell GE salmon eggs to other fisheries that have looser standards. Once GE salmon accidentally make it into the waterways of the world the possibility of disturbing wild salmon populations and the ecosystems that support them becomes a real threat.

Fish Farm

Now I’m not saying that GE salmon farms are akin to breeding dinosaurs on an island -turned theme park but the point is, just because most of the fish are sterile and kept away from wild populations doesn’t mean that the risk of GE fish contaminating the wild is negligible. Undoing the ecological damage from this could be a long and painful process that is best avoided.


Human Health

GE salmon reach market size in half the time—great for AquaBounty—but nothing in life comes without a cost. The Frankenfish have developmental and hormonal problems, as well as high levels of IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor–which is thought to increase risk of certain cancers in humans). Reports of potential allergic reactions to the fish were conducted with only 6 to 12 individual GE specimens and, pollution from intensive fish farming can contaminate important water sources.

Animal Welfare

And lets not forget the animal welfare grievances. Although welfare concerns are not unique to the potential GE salmon fisheries,

GE fish have problems developing healthy respiratory systems and have limited mobility. An expert panel set up by the Royal Society of Canada has concluded that significant health and welfare problems are the norm in GE fish production.

Isn’t our food supply regulated?

The U.S. FDA is responsible for ensuring that any organism that may enter or alter the food supply is safe for human consumption. However, the process for approving GE food proposals has long been criticized as problematic. Currently, the process for FDA approval relies heavily on data from the companies that produce and profit from the GE products with practically no long-term, independent monitoring of safety. The current application for AquaAdvantage salmon is based predominantly on safety data provided by experiments done by AquaBounty. Approval of GE salmon may set the precedent for future GE animals approval so the direction of this FDA decision is paramount for ensuring future safety.

Overwhelming outcry from the public and activist watchdog groups has caused the US. FDA to extend the deadline for public commenting on the proposal set forth by AquaBounty until April 26, 2013. This commenting period is a time for concerned citizens and groups to voice their opinion about the proposal to allow growing and selling genetically engineered fish for commercial sale and consumption. If you are interested in voicing your opinion you can fill out this petition set forth by the Food and Water Watch organization or you can comment directly on the FDA website.

A moment to consider your food

The use of GMO products in agriculture and industry has long been debated but the truth remains that, although GMOs have a host of environmental and ecological concerns, they are fast becoming an important and reliable food source around the world. I mean after all, GE salmon can make fresh fish affordable for many Americans and reduce over-fishing of wild populations. This post barely demonstrates the tip of the iceberg with GMO food policy and it not meant to simply demonize GMOS.  However, as technologies move forward, ever advancing and changing how industry works, I urge you to always consider where your food comes from and how it came to be on your table.

Gaythia Weis February 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm

The ways that GMOs are being implemented seems to me to be oriented towards what seems expedient for corporate profits and thus driven by factors such as patent laws. This is unfortunate.

Opposition to specific GMO products has sometimes accomplished the political nearly impossible; uniting very conservative groups such as Midwest farmers, Washington apple growers, and Pacific Northwest fishermen/women with seemingly incompatible environmentalists.

In my opinion, scientists have too often seemed to come out on the non-democratic side. Opposing GMO disclosure initiatives rather than proactively working for more complete food source disclosure laws for example.

Public perceptions of risk are not aided by such tactics.

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Thank you Gaythia. I agree with you that it is difficult to get everyone to work together on issues like these. There are important discussions to be had across scientific, political, environmental, and agricultural groups but as you said it seems incompatible! I am optimistic, however, that a growing number of citizens are becoming concerned with their food systems.

Brian Zikmund-Fisher February 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm


While I appreciate your consideration of the different types of concerns raised by GE fish, I think your post would have been stronger had it also discussed the net benefits raised by increased availability of fish to the food supplies and the potential avoidance of overfishing of wild fish resources.

As is true with most risk contexts, there are real concerns, but avoidance of (a) usually involves acceptance of (b), which comes with its own problems. There are real problems with both the lack of clean fish for consumption and the methods used to extract ever increasing amounts of fish from the oceans too.

I think we have an obligation when we raise awareness of one set of risks to also acknowledge the potential reductions in other risks that might come from that path.

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I really appreciate the feedback! I agree with you that the post would have been stronger if I had discussed the net benefits associated with the issue. First, I was trying to keep the post short because GMOs and fish farming are dauntingly large topics. Additionally, I was attempting to avoid focusing on the benefits and risks of large-scale fish farming. Instead I tried to focus just on the importance of the policy decision regarding genetically modified animals for consumption. My goal was to raise awareness of the issue in general but I agree that I should have presented a more balanced argument for the benefit of GE animal protein in lowering cost for fish in the food supply so as to present a truly informative article. Thanks again for the comment!

peg February 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Excellent article! As you aptly say, this is the tip of the informational iceberg on a topic that is very interesting and probably not widely understood. I’d love to hear more on each of your discussion points.

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Thanks for reading and for the comment. I agree that the issue needs a larger arena than this for thorough discussion so that the complexities of every side can be considered.

David Reedy February 20, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Thoughful article but be careful of your punctuation and grammer. A spell check will miss things like its for it’s, lets for let’s or too many commas. I’m not sure a fishery is a ‘who’ . I’d think that a fishery would more likely be a ‘which’.

David February 20, 2013 at 6:18 pm

You may have the grammatical high ground for the moment, sir, but depending on how much AquaBounty scrambles the fish genomes, fisheries are liable to become “whos” in short order! :)

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm

I appreciate your careful reading David. I have since changed the ‘fishery’ sentence. I suppose I was thinking of fish farming organizations rather than the actual locations.

Michael February 20, 2013 at 7:29 pm

What would happen if they raised the fish on farms where they couldn’t survive the escape? Far from a stream, say, or in a warm environment where the farms’ controlled conditions are the only thing keeping them alive?

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Hi Michael. I probably should have mentioned that AquaBounty does plan to raise the GE salmon in inland tanks in Panama. This is certainly a necessity given the dangers of releasing the fish near their natural habitat. However, once the fish are approved and mass-produced it is a strong possibility that the company will sell its GE eggs to other fisheries that are less tightly controlled. Thank you for reading and for the comment!

Jvc February 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Sounds fishy!

ZebZ February 20, 2013 at 8:13 pm

With your statement the case rests: “The use of GMO products in agriculture and industry has long been debated but the truth remains that, although GMOs have a host of environmental and ecological concerns, they are fast becoming an important and reliable food source around the world.” These concerns seem minor relative to large world wide populations living in poverty and subsistence areas.

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Thank you for reading! I agree that these concerns are minor relative to widespread poverty and I am not against the progress of new agricultural practices that could help alleviate these problems. My main concern is that, as these new technologies develop, policy designed to govern best practices and future directions will be less comprehensive than would be ideal.

Chris February 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

I don’t really know much about GE foods. The part that scares me the most is fish with limited mobility and poor respiratory systems. That is cruel to the fish and not something I would want to eat.

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Thank you for reading. I agree that there is an inherent animal welfare concern with developing animals that cannot compete well on their own. I hope that as the push for GE animal products continues, as it certainly will, consumers and citizens will have the information that they need so that everyone can make informed decisions about what they are comfortable with eating and what types of food systems they choose to support.

Joe Muir February 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Great info – seems wrong and weird to me to produce food this way!

Katie February 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Thanks Joe! There certainly is a different feel from this type of food production than what we normally envision as fishing. It is uncomfortable that a lot of food produced in this country is a far cry from traditional farming and fishing. Some of this has been for the greater good and has allowed us to feed millions at lower prices. On the other hand it has led to wide scale problems of monoculture farming, herbicide-resistant plants causing ever increased use of chemicals, factory farming of animals, and and the list goes on.

As unnatural as it is, our current population would struggle to support itself using more traditional methods. It is a balancing act between feeding a large industrial society and providing ethically sourced food. However, I believe that every consumer should be aware of where their food comes from and have the information and knowledge necessary to make informed choices about the food they eat. We are participants in our food system and those of us (who are lucky enough to have the luxury of choice at the grocery store) can vote on acceptable practices with our consumer choices.

Virginia February 22, 2013 at 9:04 am

The fda

Virginia February 22, 2013 at 9:19 am

Forgive the duplicate, please . Too often my fingers fall in the wrong place on this iPad.
The FDA is understaffed and under funded, these genes can be patented creating monopolies for companies like Monsanto, just to add to the problems you’ve already stated. One of our values should include buying as many non GM and processed food products as we can afford and finally increase in sales will naturally decrease the costs.
Congrats, your blog is convincing. Has there been a study as to the taste quality ?

Katie February 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Thank you for reading Virginia. Typing on a ipad really is a pain!
I agree that the FDA (in addition to many other governmental offices) is understaffed and underfunded and it leads to cutting corners of areas that are critically important as we move forward with technologies that are drastically changing the face of our food system. I avoided discussing food and GMO gene monopolies and Monsanto because it is a large, complex issue that needs is own attention. I didn’t think I could do it justice here.

And you are so right about the consumers ability to influence the market through their choices at the grocery store! Sometimes it is easy to forget that we are participants in our food supply and the consumer market in general. Unfortunately, I have not come across any studies regarding the taste quality but if it isn’t great I’m sure there is a gene for that too, haha.

Ruth Seeley February 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm

The three industries that have been most demonized in the public’s mind are nuclear, GMO, and nanotechnology. Each and every one of these industries has been targeted with and tainted by the label ‘franken.’ (Opponents of nuclear energy have suggested radiation could cause genetic mutations in human and animal offspring, and it was a quick leap to The Incredible Hulk and Frankenstein’s monster from there.) So it’s dismaying to see you perpetuating this meme in your headline, especially when Mark Lynas has so recently – and humbly – done a mea culpa on the subject of GMOs, saying that he hadn’t researched and didn’t understand the science and regrets that he was a driving force behind their being banned in Europe.

Remember that the headline tends to be what the greatest number of people see and remember, not the body of the article. In mainstream media the article author doesn’t get the luxury of writing his/her own headline. Bloggers do. So unless you really want to come down on the side of GMOs being unnatural, unsafe, and unfit for human consumption, I’d avoid use of the ‘franken’ term.

Angela March 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Hi Katie! Thank you for the post. I wondered what the relation was between the amount of studies that examine the benefits of GE salmon and studies that examine the dangers of GE salmon. From your post it seems as if there hasn’t been that much research on e.g. the effects of GE salmon on humans. Do you know how the FDA panel is assessing the risks? Have special studies been commissioned?

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