Stories to watch: genetic engineering in 2016

The last months of 2015 brought genetic engineering back to the front pages with several major news stories, particularly the FDA’s approval of genetically engineered salmon and breakthroughs in the use of Crispr-Cas9 (a gene-editing technology). Often when I talk to people about my research, they want to know if GMOs are safe to eat, but the debate over GMOs – and genetic engineering more broadly – is much bigger than questions of scientific risk assessment and management. These two recent stories highlight how much the debate focuses on questions of ethics too.

I’ve talked a little about Crispr before, so let’s turn to genetically engineered (GE) salmon. Scientists have been working on GE salmon for over two decades, however it wasn’t until recently that the general public became more aware the research. The delay in public interest is largely due to the research process. AquaBounty Technologies Inc. began its application process for FDA approval twenty years ago, but reports on GE salmon picked up in recent years as approval moved closer. More coverage appeared in the mainstream press when the FDA approved GE salmon for human consumption in Nov 2015.

In addition to approving AquAdvantage salmon for human consumption, the FDA has decided the salmon does not need to be labelled as genetically modified. This decision is not surprising based on other FDA decisions regarding GM food. The FDA does not require GM crops that are on the market to be labelled if they are shown to be biologically, “substantially equivalent” to conventional crops, and GE salmon meets the FDA’s definition of equivalence. Moreover, the company behind GE salmon is not making any claims about its impact on human health (e.g. it’s good for your heart or lowers your cholesterol), which would trigger other types of regulatory oversight. Instead, the salmon has been genetically modified so that it grows at a faster rate than non-modified salmon, reaching market size in about 18 months rather than the usual three years. The proclaimed benefit is that salmon producers will be able to meet growing, global appetites.

Of course, several opponents – including conventional salmon producers – have spoken out against the FDA’s approval of AquAdvantage, with claims ranging from potential negative, environmental impacts and overuse of antibiotics in the food chain to an erosion of consumer rights due to the lack of labelling requirements. The speed at which we are now editing genes in animals and insects (e.g. salmon, cattle, pigs, mosquitoes) has also led scientists and bioethicists to warn that we’re not spending enough time on debating the risks, benefits, and ethics of these methods.

Similar concerns have been voiced regarding genetic engineering in humans as well. Increased use of Crispr technology over the last two years has motivated scientists to hold a summit to discuss ethical considerations, best practices, and establish a basic framework for acceptable use. Now that genetic engineering methods are being employed more broadly in food production, it would be a good time to revisit ethical considerations and potential risks for animals and the environment too. While GE salmon and Crispr-Cas9 became lightning rod topics in 2015 in genetic engineering debates, I expect to see even more biotech topics to front pages in 2016.