Field of Science


Genetically Modified Meat Is Coming. Should You Worry?

Are you ready for genetically modified food to hit your plate?

Trick question! You're already eating it. In 2009, 91% of the U.S. soybean crop was genetically modified, as was 85% of our corn. Soy and corn are ingredients in just about any food that has an ingredients label. Go check your cabinet if you don't believe me.

Don't be intimidated by the science. "Genetically modified" or "genetically engineered" (GM or GE for brevity's sake) just mean that extra genes were snuck into these plants' DNA. Usually, the extra genes make the plants resistant to weedkillers or infections, giving farms higher yields.

GM meat, though, is not available in the United States. Yet. The FDA recently released a mostly-positive report on a type of GM salmon called AquAdvantage. Though an advisory committee decided more time was needed to study the salmon, it seems inevitable that this fish, or something like it, will eventually reach the market. Here's a handy guide to how much this should worry you.

Should I be afraid of . . .

. . . Frankenfish? A Google search for the exact phrase "genetically modified frankenfish" returns over 97,000 results. So clearly someone is afraid of this, whatever it is. It may help to remember that just because a fish has an extra gene or two doesn't mean it has bolts coming out of its face. AquAdvantage salmon have extra genes that let them make more growth hormone than usual. As a result, they grow faster than regular fish.

. . . extra hormones in my food? Probably not. There's no evidence that your body can do anything with a fish hormone.

. . . escaped GM fish wiping out wild fish populations? Great question! Scientists definitely don't want genetically modified fish, which are raised in farms, to mingle with wild fish. This could really mess up a population of wild fish, either by bullying them out of their food or by spreading genes that are harmful in the long term. The makers of AquAdvantage are taking extensive measures to prevent this. First, they've made their salmon all female and all (in theory) sterile. And the fish are separated from waterways by several levels of physical barricades.

Still, the FDA says that up to 5% of AquAdvantage salmon might squeak through the sterilization process un-sterilized. For now, there seem to be plenty of walls and nets to hold those still-fertile fish in place. But if the fish are raised and sold all over the country, some facilities might not be as fastidious as others about sterilization or containment. And once you're talking about millions of fish, even 5% becomes a lot of salmon to worry about.

. . . natural disasters? Could a big enough flood wash all of these GM salmon out of contained areas and into open waterways? People try to design fish pens such that it would take a really rare natural disaster to cause problems. But global warming might already be increasing the frequency of natural disasters in the world--not just storms and floods, but even earthquakes and volcanoes as melting ice and rising oceans change the pressure on faults. A so-called "100-year event," which is the standard the USDA aims for, might happen more often in the future.

. . . deformed fish? Not on your plate. But in their enclosures, plenty of these fish are swimming around with hunchbacks, deformed gills, or abnormal jaws. It doesn't have to do with genetic engineering, though. It's just a fact of fish farming. At some salmon farms, 70 or 80% of fish have been found to be deformed.

This study only examined a small number of AquAdvantage fish for deformities, and concluded that the added genes aren't a problem. But the process used to sterilize the fish, which is not unusual for fish farming, does cause deformities. Out of 12 sterilized AquAdvantage fish, at least 10 had structural abnormalities.

. . . sea lice? Of course not! Unless you're a fish on a fish farm, in which case, yes. And if you're a wild salmon that has to swim past a fish farm, you might have to worry that sea lice will latch onto you and, pretty soon, wipe out your whole population.

So it's probably not worth it to concern yourself about genetically modified food. I, for one, have enough to worry about already.

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