After four years of testing, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have approved AquaBounty Technologies’ genetically-modified salmon for retail sale in Canada. Given that the mighty U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the same technology six months ago, Canada’s decision does not come as a surprise.
Canada’s regulators stated that genetically-modified ingredients have been consumed by Canadians for decades. In fact, over 70 per cent of the food sold in Canada contains ingredients that have been genetically engineered in some way.
Until now, however, the technology has only influenced how we grow crops, not animals. The AquaAdvantage salmon is the world’s first approved genetically-modified animal.
The intellectual property to create the salmon was partially developed in Canada but championed by the American company AquaBounty. The AquaAdvantage salmon became possible when the genes from a Chinook salmon were crossed with an Atlantic salmon and an eel. It is perhaps not the most appetizing sounding genetic combination but it works.
The AquaAdvantage salmon grows full size in almost half the time it takes farmed salmon to grow. The rapid development of the fish means that input costs will be halved and productivity increases dramatically. For Canada, one of the world largest exporters of salmon, this is welcome news.
What makes this discovery particularly intriguing is the nutritional value of salmon, which is high on the list of foods recommended by nutritionists.
However, several questions remain.
One is about supply chain transparency.
Many consumers want mandatory labelling of genetically-modified content, and for good reasons. The food industry does not have the most outstanding track record on long-term risk foresight. Trans fats, sodium, sugar – these and other ingredients have been added without consumers’ consent and have become menaces to our health. Concerned consumers can hardly be blamed for fearing genetically-engineered ingredients since no one has made a clear argument for the benefits the technology brings to our tables. The business case for genetically-engineered crops is compelling, but its benefit for consumers remains nebulous.
What makes the genetically-modified salmon distinctive is that consumers will be offered a modified product free of any processing. Unlike crops grown in a remote field, genetically-modified salmon makes the technology accessible and real. Similar to the newly-approved Arctic apple, which will be available in a few years, consumers will have access to a genetically-engineered, market-ready, finished product.
It will be interesting to see how the market reacts, but first consumers will need to be told how genetically-modified salmon can provide value to consumers. You could argue that the technology can make salmon more affordable, but with distribution forces at play, any claims that salmon would be cheaper will always be debatable.
From an industry perspective, however, the arrival of genetically-modified salmon may actually be more challenging. Without any clear labelling, the salmon may generate market confusion and that won’t help sustain the salmon industry as a whole. Traditionally, fished salmon has been worth more in the eyes of many consumers and the industry may miss out on the chance to capitalize on market differentiation. Not all salmon are equal, particularly with consumers, who can be irrational beings.
As well, the arrival of genetically-modified salmon may actually add fuel to the fire for environmental groups and consumers who are uncomfortable with anything deemed unnatural. However, many multinational corporations like Campbell’s and General Mills have moved to labelling that includes information on genetic modifications in their products. And Vermont legislation that requires labelling on all products containing genetically-modified ingredients comes into effect this summer. But even as we slowly march toward resolution on this issue, allowing genetically-modified animals to be marketed in Canada may resurrect the fear in many.
Marches against agrochemical giant Monsanto continue but do not garner as much attention as they once did. In part, that’s because science has demonstrated that there are not any particular risks related to the consumption of genetically-modified products. Simply, the technology is not making our food unsafe.
However, a recent Canadian survey suggests that while most Canadians are willing to purchase a product labelled as genetically modified, 88 per cent of consumers believe that genetically-modified labelling should be mandatory.
And as genetically-modified salmon arrives in our supermarkets, it is time that our labelling regulations give consumers a chance to have the final word on the technology.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.