Scientists build a better salmon

Salmon may soon be the first genetically modified animal to hit our dinner plates. We've been eating GMO foods for years, mostly without noticing it, but until now all the genetically modified organisms have been plants.

The new salmon was developed by AquaBounty Technologies, a company in Massachusetts, and here╒s how it works: start with Atlantic salmon, add a growth gene from the Pacific Chinook salmon, and add another gene from the ocean pout (Trisopterus luscus). In combination, these two genes make the Atlantic salmon grow to maturity in just 18 months, instead of the normal 3 years. The new salmon have the potential to make salmon farming much more efficient. The Washington Post reported this week that the FDA is close to approving the fish for human consumption.

This is cool science. So why are all the reports, both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, making it sound like a frightening development?

Let's get one thing straight: we have to learn how to farm our fish. The human race is rapidly depleting the stocks of almost every wild fish that we like to eat, and many traditional fisheries are already wiped out. Others have been depleted so badly that severe fishing limitations have been imposed in a desperate attempt to allow stocks to recover. This can't go on.

Think about it: we farm all the other animals that we eat. Imagine that we only ate wild cows, or chicken, or pigs. The human race can't be fed by wild animals alone - we're too numerous and too hungry. Sooner or later, we will drive wild fish to extinction, unless we make the switch to farmed fish.

And as I wrote recently, oily fish like salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to carry health benefits, especially when compared to the fats contained in other meats. We should all eat more salmon.

Okay, but what about the downsides of GMO salmon? The anti-GMO forces have issued statements warning of dire consequences if these "Frankenfish" are allowed on the market. Wenonah Hauter, the director of Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit whose goals I generally support, issued a statement that is full of misinformation. For example, she claims that the salmon are "toxic", which sounds pretty scary. As evidence, she says "a recent study commissioned by the European Union revealed that fish that have been modified to grow faster also have a higher tolerance to the toxins in their environment."

I looked up the EU study, by by Fredrik Sundström at the University of Gothenburg, to learn what it actually said. Although the university's press release says that "transgenic fish can be more resistant to environmental toxins," the study itself didn't provide any evidence for this claim. In fact, it didn't even study toxins. Instead, Prof. Sundström looked at what might happen if GMO fish escaped into the wild, and he concluded that they might survive better than wild fish. He didn't conclude anything about toxins.

Hauter of Food and Water Watch isn't the only one to get this wrong. Reporter Paulina Reso at the New York Daily News got it just as wrong, reporting that "A study commissioned by the E.U. found that these engineered fish have a higher tolerance to toxins, putting consumers at risk." She cites the same press release from the University of Gothenburg.

Not only is the claim about toxins unfounded, but it ignores the very real (and widely documented) danger of mercury accumulating in wild fish, including salmon. If you're truly concerned about toxins in fish, you would support fish farming, not oppose it.

The Center for Food Safety's George Kimbrell, quoted in The Post article and elsewhere, threatened to sue the FDA if they approve the new transgenic salmon. He says they are concerned about "catastrophic consequences like the gulf oil spill." Wow, that sounds awful! Transgenic salmon will be as bad as the largest oil spill in U.S. history? Is he kidding? Rather than spend time on breathless hyperbole, Kimbrell should be worried about the very real possibility of driving wild salmon to extinction. He doesn't explain what his concern is based on, and it seems that his group simply opposes any genetically modified organisms on principal. Their opposition is not based on science, nor on any well-thought-out concern about nature or the environment.

And yes, I know that fish farming itself can be harmful to the local environment. But our response can't be to abandon fish farming and continue overfishing until all wild fish are extinct. As the saying goes, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We should work on ways to improve fish farming techniques and make them more sustainable.

Transgenic technology is cool. Of course it can be used in ways that don't benefit consumers - but so can traditional genetic techniques (which don't require any FDA approval, by the way). Take tomatoes: I can't remember the last time I found a tasty store-bought tomato in the U.S. They look great but taste like cardboard, all thanks to selective breeding that makes them easier to pack and transport. If someone creates a transgenic tomato that tastes good, I'll be the first in line to buy it. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to the day when I can taste the new transgenic salmon.


  1. Farming animals in general is bad for the local environment. Especially when it is scaled up to produce thousands of animals such as in fish farms.

    Furthermore the large scale of farming needs disease control using antibiotics.
    Large scale farming of any kind of animal has the great potential to stimulate pathogens to develop resistance with effects on the human population. For example, most dutch pig farmers are not allowed in hospitals anymore in the NL since they carry the MRSA bacteria. They are treated with extra care, a lot of extra care when they are sick.

    It's not the toxins that are dangerous for us humans. It's the antibiotics we need to do large scale farming efficiently, that makes future farming such a nice breeding ground for pathogens.

    Future salmon will be tasty indeed.

  2. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read intelligent unbiased commentary from someone who not only understands the science, but is not afraid to dispute the lies, misinformation, and/or disinformation disseminated by activists such as Hauter and Kimbrell. The goal of activists like them is to confuse the technically unsophisticated consumer with lies and/or misinformation in hopes that the consumer will be scared away from embracing exciting new technologies that benefit mankind. People like Hauter believe that all of mankind can be fed by shopping at Whole Foods, and indirectly people like Hauter & Kimbrell will be responsible for millions dying of starvation because they were deprived of revolutionary food producing technology by a bunch of food luddites.

  3. While I applaud skepticism and pragmatism, I'm not sure that this blog post furthers those goals. (I do appreciate you repeating the very important message that we're fishing our oceans to death, however!)

    This post implies that mercury may be less in farmed fish. This is, last I heard, false (

    Also, the first commenter is correct that ocean farming of salmon has some pretty intense localized ecological problems.

    Land-based, "closed" farms are an ecologically friendly alternative to ocean-based salmon farms. However, the vast majority of farmed salmon is the bad kind, not the good kind.

    Now, as for these GMO salmon, give me one of these land-farmed super fish and I will eat the hell out of it.

  4. For an article which presumes to debunk perception errors based on science, your writing is certainly chock full of massive errors and omissions.
    1. You omit the concern cited in the papers you are referencing about the increased levels of growth hormone in the genetically modified salmon.
    Perhaps you're aware that the massive increase in growth hormone in our food is leading to large increases in PUBERTY AMONG 7 YEAR OLD GIRLS IN THE USA? Hmmmm?
    2. You are completely wrong about farm fish being more Mercury and toxin free than wild salmon: (
    3. As your hero, Donald Rumsfeld, would say, these are only the "known knowns". The biggest reason to not create and sell these gigantic Frankenfish is that evolution has shown that there are long term reasons for fish being the size, shape, and hormonal makeup that they are. Monsanto has demonstrated with its use of genetically engineered plants that in the long run, naturally bred plants and animals are cheaper, healthier, and safer than these kinds of 'stuck on stupid', 'one hammer' approaches being driven by clueless Harvard MBA's that are getting jobs as CEOs running companies about which they have zero hands on experience, zero long term concern, and zero accountability for the consequences of poisoning our food supply and our environment with this kind of crap.

    Frankenfish are NOT about "saving the wild salmon". The ARE about increasing the size of the paychecks of a CEO and his executives. Period. If these people gave a crap about saving wild salmon, they would advocate reversing the trends that have truly decimated salmon populations: destruction of wild rivers, poisoning of rivers with phosphates and pesticides, and unregulated overfishing.

    This article is, in its entirety, a red herring (pun intended).

  5. I didn't write that farmed fish are "more mercury and toxin free" than wild salmon - go back and read it. What I wrote is that wild fish are known to have mercury contamination - this is particularly a problem for large fish such as tuna and salmon. As for farmed fish, some farmed salmon have been reported to have mercury while other farms do not. (For example, a 2008 Canadian study found mercury in both wild and farmed salmon, but at higher levels in the wild salmon.) The solution to this is better fish farming techniques - not abandoning farming and going back to a reliance on wild fish.

    The last commenter attributed other beliefs to me that are simply made up, so I won't bother to address those.

  6. Overfishing isn't only about the amount of fish that get fished but also about fishing policies. is a good talk about the topic.
    According to it we can fish as much as we do presently if we just move to protect a sizable area (25%) of the ocean from fishing and let fish regrow in those areas.

  7. Fish don't produce the DHA & EPA omega-3 we get from eating them; they get it from the algae they eat. It'd be better for us to just get our omega 3 from the algae directly, avoiding the need to deplete wild fish stocks, farm genetically engineered fish or expose ourselves to mercury.
    Here is the research backing up claims:

  8. Salzberg, I'm unsure whether you are paid to keep quiet on things, afraid of being honest and truthful, or just plain ignorant.
    Watching two hours of a documentary on Monsanto (The World According to Monsanto that is) is generally enough for people to lose faith in such a company and question their ethics, let alone the research coming forth about mutation, immune system complications and even honey bee population decline related to GM foods and Bt toxins.
    You seem to think it's fine to support companies committing such great crimes not only against humanity, but nature as well.
    Either way I don't care, I eat organic, largely vegan and haven't touched a pharmaceutical drug in over 3 years. What I can tell you is that I have more energy and a clearer mind than ever before, and I have not gotten sick in any way since changing my diet.
    It disappoints me that people with knowledge and voices such as your own (which is much more in scientific fields) refuse to delve deeper into the truth surrounding such topics. I'm someone who is a part of a slightly younger generation who cares deeply for their entire human race and our planet, and knowing I would like to bring up family in a natural world it pains me deeply some days to see writing such as yours.

  9. Or we just stop eating fish. Simple.


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