The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering the approval of the first transgenic farm animal for human consumption, the AquAdvantage Salmon. Genetically engineered for rapid growth with two stretches of foreign DNA--a growth hormone gene with an antifreeze protein promoter--these Atlantic salmon "frankenfish" hold a 20-fold growth advantage over non-genetically modified animals.
The FDA notes evidence of "increased frequency of skeletal malformations, and increased prevalence of jaw erosions and multisystemic, focal inflammation" in the tissues of AquAdvantage Salmon, but dismisses these findings as "within the range observed in rapid growth phenotypes of non-genetically engineered Atlantic salmon." In other words, the abnormalities they found were no worse than those currently plaguing farmed salmon genetically manipulated for accelerated growth through other means.
Up to 80 percent of factory farmed salmon in Chile--where most of our Atlantic salmon is imported from--have suffered from what the aquaculture industry calls "screamer disease," in which severe facial disfigurements locks their jaws permanently agape. In Norway, another major exporter to the United States, "humpback" spinal compression deformities have been found in 70 percent of salmon operations. Twenty different types of spinal malformations have repeatedly been found in factory farmed Atlantic salmon. These abnormalities have been linked to the physiological stressors of intensive production.
The fact that the "variety of inflammatory and degenerative lesions" found in AquAdvantage Salmon "are mostly consistent with diseases of intensively-reared fish" should be recognized as an indictment of the system rather than a justification for perpetuating these problems. Restricting scrutiny of transgenic applications only to changes substantially different from those derived from existing reproductive technologies may only further entrench practices with serious welfare repercussions.
Ironically, the biotech company that invented the AquAdvantage Salmon argues that the list of health disorders their fish suffer from could be seen as an advantage in that "any escapees from containment would be less capable of surviving." The genetically modified fish grow at such a rate that the metabolic demands might help preclude their survival in nature, making them less likely to create ecological havoc should they escape into the wild.
Concern about transgenic farm animals doesn't end at the waters edge. Following the FDA's logic of evaluating biotechnology in only relativistic terms could mean the approval for transgenic calves born so freakishly huge that they can only be extracted via Caesarian section, because breeds of such genetically defective "double muscled" cattle have already been created. Chickens have already been bred for such rapid muscling that billions suffer in chronic pain every year in the United States from skeletal disorders that impair their ability to even walk, and so a transgenic avian cripple would fit right in using the FDA's rationale. Right now hens lay so many eggs they risk a prolapse--laying their own uterus. Up to a quarter of dairy cows are clinically lame and turkeys are now so top-heavy they are physically incapable of mating. All of these abominations exist today, products of conventional techniques of genetic manipulation. Genetic engineering, the creation of transgenic farm animals whose genes have been modified through biotechnology, goes a step further, giving agribusiness an additional tool to stress animals to their biological limits at the expense of their health and welfare.