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The FDA Just Approved Genetically Modified Meat for the First Time

The Food and Drug Administration just approved the sale and consumption of super-fast-growing, genetically engineered salmon—and soon, they're coming to a plate near you.

Wyatt Marshall

Genetically engineered salmon is coming to a plate near you.

The FDA gave the green light to genetically modified salmon on Thursday after an approval process that lasted 20 years, marking the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption. As it stands, GM salmon will not need to be labeled as a GM product on store shelves in keeping with FDA policies regarding genetically modified crops. While many scientists are championing the approval as a victory for food science and a move toward sustainable proteins in our future, consumer and environmental groups are already preparing a lawsuit to challenge the approval and are demanding that genetically engineered salmon be labeled as such.

The GM salmon, known as AquAdvantage salmon, is produced by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies and grows to market size in half the time of its natural counterparts. AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon that has been spliced with genes from Chinook salmon and an ocean pout to speed up its maturation process. The GM salmon eggs will be produced in Canada (where environmental groups have been challenging the approval of the egg production facility), and the fish will be raised in Panama in a process that takes about a year and a half. The fish are farmed in tanks inside of specialized warehouses.

READ: Environmental Groups Worry that GM Salmon Could Cause Irreparable Harm

"This ruling is important to make aquaculture more productive and efficient," said Dr. Rex Dunham, a professor at the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn University in regards to the approval. "Technologies such as this are important as the population of our planet continues to grow, and requires more protein with increasing demand for fish."

But environmental and consumer groups have concerns. Environmentalists worry that if a GM salmon were to escape into the wild, the fish could be an invasive species with major adverse effects on the environment. AquaBounty takes precautions to prevent this from happening, including physical barriers to prevent fish from leaving their tanks through drainage pipes, and rendering the fish—all female—sterile. But the sterility process has a minute chance of failure, and if fish were to somehow escape into the wild, one could potentially mate with a wild salmon.

Photo via US Fish and Wildlife Service

An Atlantic salmon. Photo via US Fish and Wildlife Service

Consumer groups also argue that the safety studies conducted by the FDA were inadequate, and they are demanding that any GM salmon sold be clearly labeled. A consumer rights coalition that includes groups such as Friends of the Earth and Food & Water Watch have already lobbied and received a commitment from Kroger Co. and Safeway Ltd. that they will not sell the GM salmon in their stores.

"This unfortunate, historic decision disregards the vast majority of consumers, many independent scientists, numerous members of Congress and salmon growers around the world, who have voiced strong opposition," said Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement.

AquaBounty asserts that its salmon is nutritionally identical to naturally grown salmon, and many scientists agree. Some argue that this GM salmon is just one more instance of a human role in genetic selection, a practice that goes back thousands of years as crops and animals were crossbred to produce desirable traits.

"I believe this is a historic decision for the future of human agriculture," said Dr. Mart Gross of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. "First, it recognizes that the GMO technology used with the Atlantic salmon is part of the 10,000 year practice of genetic manipulation including artificial selection and artificial hybridization that has made food abundant and sustained a growing human population."

Others see GM salmon as a win for the environment because it will take pressure off of overfished wild salmon populations. Because the fish are grown in tanks, there also aren't risks associated with open net-cage salmon farming such as disease outbreaks.

The FDA says the decision for approval took so long because it was the first GM animal to be approved for consumer consumption. The New York Times reports that people involved in the application for approval think the approval may have taken so long due to the Obama administration's anticipation of backlash for the decision.

AquaBounty may voluntarily label the fish as GMO, but producers are wary that the labels could make customers wary and drive up costs. Some scientists have pointed out that the rigorous FDA review should be enough to convince consumers not to worry.

The FDA suggests that voluntarily labeling could be a little vague, along the lines of, "This salmon patty was made from Atlantic salmon produced using modern biotechnology." And if non-GM salmon producers want to distinguish themselves from GM salmon, they can label their product as all-natural.

The salmon won't be in stores for two years, and even when it does hit the shelves, it will account for just 100 tons of the more than 200,000 tons of Atlantic salmon eaten in America every year. Meanwhile, environmental and consumer groups will continue in their efforts to alter the current course of the FDA's ruling.

It remains to be seen if the approval of the GM salmon opens the gates to more FDA approval of GM animal products. We'll have to wait for the Chinese goats bred to have huge muscles and extra long hair.