Derisively labeled “Frankenfish” by biotechnology opponents, genetically engineered (GE) fish are nonetheless circling closer to U.S. dinner tables. News that the U.S. government is close to approving the first genetically engineered animal – AquaBounty’s Atlantic salmon – for production and consumption has upset biotech naysayers and kicked off a lengthening list of “what if” scenarios.

What if the GE salmon impact the commercial fishing industry’s bottom line?

What if GE salmon aren’t labeled as such in grocery stores?

What if GE salmon-farming operations aren’t as diligent with security as they should be?

What if the GE salmon escape farms and swim wild?

What if Atlantic salmon escape into the Pacific?

“It’s very straight-forward. These fish are basically genetically identical to all other Atlantic salmon with one exception: we’ve added a single gene for the growth hormone from a Chinook salmon,” Ron Stotish, AquaBounty president and CEO, told Farm Press in a recent interview. “A single copy of that gene has been placed in the Atlantic salmon background so that fish grows faster than the unmodified Atlantic salmon.”

Stotish said that equates to “roughly one gene out of, probably, 30,000 … a very minor, very specific change. And what we’ve done is basically give the fish the ability to grow faster when conditions – water temperature and food -- permit. That distinguishes it from its wild counterpart.”

The GE salmon’s actual rate of growth means it is able to reach“market-weight in approximately half the time.”

A cold-water fish, GE salmon are unlikely to be raised in the South. But aquaculture has a strong presence in the region with catfish ponds and processing plants.

Asked about the GE salmon controversy, Carole Engle says “there a lot of groups that are very afraid of genetically-modified (GM) products of any sort. There are groups of consumers who do not trust it and worry that whatever is modified genetically will somehow get into the environment and cause genetic problems down the road for wild populations – and for those who consume genetically modified products.”

Engle, who directs the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff (UAPB) sayssuch fears “are present around the world. Europeans are especially concerned of GM products and have a lot of prohibitions regarding them.

“The United States does not have broad prohibitions against GM products. We do have some consumer groups who worry about it and who are opposed to its adoption. Others are in favor of it.

“The general fear is that, when you start tinkering with genetics, that those efforts will eventually have all sorts of consequences in the environment that we are not prepared to handle or deal with.”

From a cost perspective, Engle says the GE fish rate of growth is “a fabulous thing. If you can turn over your product quickly, get it big and to market-size and convert it into cash fast, that’s a good thing.

“There is no question that quick growth is a good thing in terms of economics. It will make the operation more profitable and will decrease the cost of raising salmon. The speed of the GE salmon growth results in an amazing productivity gain.  

“Ultimately, the consumer can benefit from a cheaper food product and, at the same time, it will be more profitable for producers.”