There has been some unrest following the FDA’s recent decision to lift the ban on imported GMO salmon. Genetically-modified or bioengineered organisms are a hot-button topic for many people. Some side against them, claiming them to be unnatural and unpredictable. Others side with the science behind the food, supporting the idea that modifications are necessary if we want to produce enough food to keep up with demand while making a minimal impact on our environment. Regardless of what side of the discussion you stand on, there will be a new option in the grocery store between wild-caught and farm-raised fish. To help you make an educated decision, let’s discuss what GMOs really are and how it applies to these controversial specimens.

Glow-In-The-Dark Cows?

The GMO food debate has been on a mostly slow burn for several years now with the occasional spike following new studies and regulations. As with most any controversial subjects, there’s a lot of misinformation intermingled with fact, and separating the two can be tricky. One example that gets thrown around to discredit GMOs is the idea that scientists could create something outrageous like glowing steaks. While it is true that researchers modified the genes of lab mice to make them fluoresce, it wasn’t done just for fun. The experiment was conducted as a method of determining whether or not it was possible to modify specific proteins within cells with the end goal of gathering more data for the future of gene therapy. As any scientist will undoubtedly admit, they work on a tight budget, and their funding hardly accounts for fun, nonessential projects.

On the microscopic level, genetic modification is exactly what it sounds like. Scientists can use precise chemical tools to cut and paste genetic sequences from one organism to another to create something called recombinant DNA. The practice is a lot like working with computer code. Gene sequences act like individual commands within a program. Sometimes the prompts in the code don’t work as they should, like in cancerous cells. Other times, they might work fine, but there may be a more efficient or useful way to rewrite them. Whatever the case, the new code is added, often from another “program,” and integrated so that it works for the host program. At the end of the day, the goal is always to produce a better, more efficient system than the previous iteration.

Super Salmon

In the case of the bioengineered salmon, the genes controlling their growth rate have been modified so that they reach maturity much sooner than their wild brothers and sisters. The salmon, developed by AquAdvantage, features a combination of chinook salmon growth hormones, which are naturally released by a body to signal cells that it’s time to mature, and the genetic regulators from an ocean pout. The regulators from the pout tell the salmon’s hormones to release at a faster rate than they usually would. As a result, the bioengineered salmon grow to maturity much faster than their non-engineered

Individuals concerned about eating fish whose growth rates have been altered have nothing to worry about. All animals produce growth hormones as a natural part of their aging cycle. By creating a hybrid species that grows to maturity at a faster rate, farmers can meet demand at lower costs and with quicker turnaround than before. Genetically modified foods provide farmers with more sustainable options, allowing them to feed more people per dollar than they would otherwise be able to. GMOs are lending a hand by making corn pest-resistant, giving fruit a more appealing taste so that it sells better, and creating a variety of salmon that can go from the hatchery to your table in record time. Our everyday technology is advancing, why shouldn’t our food?