The U.S. Senate moved the country one step closer Thursday afternoon to something that the world has never seen before: approving a genetically modified, or GM, animal for human consumption.
The Senate passed a bill approving reauthorization of the Food and Drug Administration, which clears the way for the agency to go ahead with its consideration of allowing GM salmon to be sold to people.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich thought the decision was too important to be left exclusively in the hands of the FDA. They wanted the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to rule on genetic engineering as well. After all, NOAA -- the senators argued -- has jurisdiction over the open sea.
Begich and Murkowski's amendment to mandate NOAA participation failed to get enough votes on the floor of the Senate, however, which means the FDA is free to make its own ruling on GM animals.
In one sense, that's not a big deal. Right now people eat GM foods including tomatoes, corn and breakfast cereal. So far, however, the FDA has not allowed a GM animal to be served on America's dinner tables.
For about 20 months, the agency has been carefully considering a proposal by Massachusetts firm AquaBounty to perrmit GM Atlantic salmon to be marketed as food for people.
AquaBounty says the fish reach market weight in about half the time of unmodified fish -- 18 months instead of 30 months, making them about 20 percent less expensive to produce.
More importantly, according to AquaBounty, in an age where most fish populations are under stress from overfishing and the planet's increasing human population, the company's GM fish will help take the pressure off of wild stocks.
Backers of the AquaBounty proposal say that if people don't find better ways to farm fish -- including genetic modification -- we may see fish populations go extinct.
AquaBounty argues that its salmon are nutritionally and chemically the same as Atlantic salmon, and that their fish will not breed with wild populations or contaminate their gene pool. The fish will be raised in inland pens for their entire lives; as an added precaution, they are sterile.
Murkowski and Begich do not want to take any chances, and have been fighting AquaBounty's plans since 2010. They say no adequate studies of possible human allergic reactions to the salmon have been made. AquaBounty claims there are no added allergenic risks.
At this point, the FDA is not likely to rule on the GM salmon before the presidential election in November. Murkowski and Begich vow to challenge the agency, however, if it moves too swiftly on giving permission to AquaBounty to commercially raise and sell the fish.
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