WASHINGTON -- Salmon have become the bait in a growing debate over the safety of genetically engineered fish.
The Center for Food Safety, opposed to biotech foods, has petitioned the government to place a moratorium on any type of transgenic breeding. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such activity, has not approved any genetically modified animal for use as human food.
Against this backdrop, Maryland became the first state to ban the farming of genetically modified fish unless they are raised in ponds or lakes that don't connect to other state waterways. This law is the first legal setback for the aquaculture industry, which is hoping to develop genetic options to supply quick, low-cost, consistently available seafood products to the consumer.
"All the laws that have been written have not included the recent ability we've acquired to manipulate species genetically, so I felt it was necessary to be explicit about that part," said Maryland Democratic Delegate Dan Morhaim, sponsor of the legislation.
On the same day the bill was signed into law, the Norwegian Fish Farmers Association issued a statement supporting efforts by Greenpeace to ban the raising of GM fish. The group alleges that transgenic fish already exist in some countries. Various species of salmon, tilapia, channel catfish and others are reportedly being developed worldwide. U.S. environmental groups increasingly are joining their European counterparts in mounting crusades against all genetically modified foods, including grains, fruits and vegetables. But Eliot Entis, president of Aqua Bounty Farms, a division of A/F Protein, Waltham, Mass., developer of a fast-growing, super-sized GM salmon, believes the GM industry will prevail.
At a recent panel on genetically modified foods held at the International Boston Seafood Show, Entis said studies show bioengineered foods are safe to eat and he foresees no opposition from processors or retailers. His only concern is the consumer.
"If the customer won't buy it, the rest of it won't matter," Entis said. The salmon he developed contains a growth hormone gene from chinook salmon that grows twice as fast as regular farmed hybrid Atlantic salmon and grows to twice the size.
While Entis spoke on the Boston panel, Greenpeace members circled the convention center in a truck sporting a billboard critical of GM fish. Entis compared the concerns about GM fish to the Y2K computer glitch many predicted would paralyze computers worldwide, but which ended up causing scarcely any disruption.
So far, 34 species of transgenic fish have been developed worldwide for aquaculture. The A/F salmon is now first under consideration by the FDA for domestic sale, and the immediate target of Center for Food Safety's ire.
Environmentalists say they are concerned that when GM fish escape and mate with wild fish, they will alter the gene pool and weaken wild stocks. Entis says his fish will be "triploided" or all-female fish that are sterile and cannot reproduce.
Rebecca Goldburg, a science specialist with Environmental Defense, another watchdog organization, said there is no way for A/F or other biotech firms can guarantee all their fish will be sterile and that GM fish "may pose a higher ecological risk than many other types of organisms." Escaped farmed fish like tilapia are causing problems in the Everglades, she added.
She worried that FDA is not the right agency to monitor GM foods, saying, "FDA has little experience regulating on the basis of environmental concerns and it's unclear if the FDA has the legal mandate to protect the environment. It's like having the Environmental Protection Agency oversee food safety."
Goldburg called for a new agency to provide oversight for the environmental considerations of GM plants and animals.