WASHINGTON - U.S. regulators are poised to decide as early as next week whether to approve a genetically modified salmon for human consumption.
It would be the first GM animal approved for human consumption, and there are fears that the review process is overlooking key ripple effects of approving the fish.
These ripple effects are both positive, such as public health benefits, and negative, such as environmental degradation, say researchers.
The debate over the salmon, which would be raised on fish farms and which contains inserted genes from two other species of fish that allow it to grow faster and require less feed than conventional salmon, has focused on whether the fish would pose a hazard to human health or, were it to escape into oceans or rivers, to wild salmon populations.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is charged with evaluating these risks, but critics say the agency is not prepared and does not have a broad enough mandate to fully examine all the implications of allowing this fish on grocery shelves.
And those implications - both positive and negative - could be vast.
"This is a major technological breakthrough that could lower the cost of production and continue to expand the salmon market," says Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University.
This, he says, follows a trend that has existed in salmon farming for the past couple decades: technological innovations have lowered the price to produce salmon. As a result, production of the fish has expanded so much that even with increased demand salmon prices have continued to decline.
"If you look at what is happening with the GM salmon, you expect you might see something similar," he told IPS.
Smith was the lead author on a study published in this week's issue of the journal Science. It concludes that the FDA's analysis fails to acknowledge that the new, transgenic salmon might affect the total production and consumption of salmon.
On the one hand, lower salmon prices could have beneficial public health benefits, since eating salmon has been associated with improved heart and brain health.
More people would be able to eat salmon, including people with lower incomes who are more susceptible to dietary illnesses but who would now have access to fresh salmon that they could not previously afford, notes Smith.
But it would also likely exacerbate environmental impacts.
The ocean pens in which most farmed salmon are raised are notorious for allowing large quantities of antibiotics and additives to leak out and damage the surrounding environment, as well as leading to farmed salmon escaping and potentially spreading disease to and contaminating the gene pool of wild salmon.
So far, the debate has been dominated by the prospect of one of these GM salmon escaping into the wild, though the company developing the salmon, AquaBounty, says the vast majority of the fish will be sterile and they will be unlikely to survive in the warm waters of Panama, where they will be raised.
Of much greater concern, says the Science study, is the fact that producing more salmon in aquaculture facilities will require even more wild fish to be caught to feed the farmed fish.
Many environmental groups criticize salmon aquaculture as inherently unsustainable because it tries to raise a predator in captivity, which requires massive amounts of feed.
Typically, three pounds of feed fish is required to produce one pound of farmed salmon. The GM salmon, called AquAdvantage salmon, will grow faster and thus have shorter life spans, meaning it will require 10 percent less food per pound of salmon produced, according to AquaBounty.
But with feed fish stocks already under great pressure from overfishing, the prospect of needing to catch more feed fish to raise even more farmed salmon is worth examining, says Smith.
"Salmon farming technology has improved dramatically in the past several decades, but there is still a requirement to feed salmon wild fish," he says. "You can't ignore the inputs that go into the production of farmed salmon any more than you can ignore the inputs that go into the production of other types of foods."
He and his co-authors recommend the FDA expand its analysis to examine as many of these consequences - both positive and negative - as possible, and if it does not have the authority to expand that analysis the U.S. Congress should look into expanding the agency's mandate.
So far their analysis has focused primarily on examining the health risks associated with eating the transgenic salmon and checking for any known toxins or allergens, but new technologies may require new scope to assess their impacts - AquAdvantage salmon will certainly not be the last GM animal to come up for approval for human consumption.
These innovations might eventually lead to new, more sustainable solutions to problems like how to feed a rapidly expanding human population that will need to raise enough animal protein and other nutrients with limited resources, but if not addressed the side effects of these innovations could outweigh their benefits.
Smith thinks it is not too late - or too difficult - for the FDA to expand its analysis of AquAdvantage salmon, but even if it is, he says, "It is more important to establish a precedent of looking at these implications. If they establish the right precedent for this case, then we can expect a broader analysis in the future."