Though more than 275,000 US farms already harvest some kind of genetically-modified produce, such as soy and corn, having a modified animal for dinner has never been an option.
Until now. Genetically-modified salmon are poised to become the first genetically-modified meat protein legally approved for human consumption.
For our pilot episode, "TechKnow" contributor Cara Santa Maria travels to Washington, Alaska and Vancouver, Canada, to learn more about the science behind genetically-modified salmon and gauge how adding it to the food supply could affect fishermen and global fish markets.
In Ketchikan, Alaska, Cara tags along with the Brad, Sarah, and Gary Haynes as they go through their usual morning routines for preparing their boat and setting sail to capture the day's fish haul. Cara even gets up close to the king salmon common in Alaskan waters.
What makes Alaskan salmon so special? What does it taste like?
"Freedom," Brad Haynes says. We’re pretty sure he’s only kidding a little bit. "It tastes like good, clean fish caught in a great, clean environment. There's just nothing better."
The Haynes have been in the business of catching fish for five generations, but their hard work is getting outpaced by the world's appetite. Their wild salmon may soon see some serious competition from fish engineered and raised in laboratories as a result. Two-thirds of the world's salmon are already farmed in facilities in Chile, Canada and Norway, and Atlantic salmon—the most commonly consumed type of salmon—has been designated an endangered species. Some scientists think taking the step to get genetically-modified salmon on the market is simply a logical response to worldwide demand.
Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is one place where these genetically-modified salmon are consistently raised and studied. The scientists at the DFO alter a gene in salmon eggs to make a kind of "super salmon," allowing the genetically-modified fish to mature at twice the rate of wild salmon. This works in part because modified salmon are usually much more aggressive about seeking out food.
"They responded very dramatically in some cases and showed even a ten -- even thirty-fold increase in growth," says research scientist Dr. Robert Devlin.
At the DFO, Cara helps weigh the fish before other employees tag them:
Cara then visits and feeds the separate fish tanks for the wild and genetically-modified salmon. While the wild fish tend to keep away from Cara and Devlin, regarding them as a threat, the genetically modified fish immediately go after the food dropped into the tank.
"I was throwing these spoonfuls [to genetically-modified salmon] -- not that much feed out into the water -- and the fish were just voracious," Cara says. "It was a feeding frenzy."
"They waste almost no food," Devlin says. "Their behavior is so strong to acquire food resources [that] there's very little waste. So for any amount of food taken in, they will grow about 15 to 20 percent larger."
These two tanks, for example, contain fish that are exactly the same age:
Devlin's lab isn't involved in the process to get genetically-modified salmon into the food market. That endeavor is led by AquaBounty Technologies, a US company that first began engineering genetically-modified salmon in 1989 and is now working to have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve genetically-modified salmon for sale in the United States.
The FDA has already declared farmed salmon safe to eat and determined that the fish won't hurt the environment. If approvals continue, American consumers could see genetically-modified salmon in grocery stores before the end of 2013. AquaBounty then plans to work with Health Canada to get the modified salmon approved for sale in Canada as well.
AquaBounty's salmon are created by combining a gene in the Atlantic ocean's chinook salmon with a gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish, which is naturally much larger than the chinook salmon. Mixing those genes instructs the chinook to grow as if it has biology more like the pout.
In order to prevent the genetically-modified salmon from mixing with the wild salmon, AquaBounty sends their engineered eggs to a facility in Panama that uses above-ground tanks. The genetically-modified salmon are grown there and then, with the FDA's approval, would be transported back to the United States for sale.
One major market for fresh fish is Seattle’s legendary Pike Place Market, where Cara speaks with vendors about whether they'd sell genetically-modified salmon.
"No!" says Ryan Reese, one of the employees at Pike Place Fish. "We would be very worried that genetically-modified fish would escape."
Gary Haynes, the father of the Alaska fishing family whose boat we went out on, says the real issue isn’t the taste of the fish, but the profit margin. "It's [about] big corporations' bottom dollar,” he says. “The reason they want to grow them twice as fast is because they can turn the product over twice as fast. To me, it just a red flag waving. I would never eat it."
In Granville Island Market in Vancouver, Canada, shoppers are similarly skeptical. Many of the people Cara interviews say that they wouldn't buy the genetically-modified salmon.
The negative press that laboratories receive has made them disinclined to allow more media to see their work before it's approved. "TechKnow" asked AquaBounty to open their facility in Panama to our cameras, or to allow interviews with their scientists based in the U.S. or Canada, but the company declined to participate.
For now, safety is the key question, and research will continue as companies press for government approval. Ultimately, even if widely approved by regulators, whether genetically-modified salmon will become a lasting part of the world's food supply will depend on consumers. If enough people enjoy the taste and buy the product, genetically-modified meats could be around for a while and expand past fish to include other animals in the future.
Families that make their living from catching wild salmon aren't too worried about the competition—for now. After all, the Haynes are still living in the salmon capital of the world.
"Just to get dirty and grab hold of that fish that just came out of the ocean. We saw the look in your eye," Brad Haynes says to Cara.
To them, genetically-modified fish can never truly replace what wild salmon offers.