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Panama's researchers have played a key role in creating a rapidly growing salmon that may soon become the world's first commercially sold genetically modified (GM) animal.
The US's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled the consumption of GM salmon to be as safe as conventional Atlantic salmon, and is now analyzing public comments on its environmental impact as the final part of the approval process.
If the FDA permits the transgenic salmon to be imported for human consumption — which the firm that developed the fish hopes will be granted this year — the research station in Panama that is studying the GM salmon would switch to growing it for the US market.
This would have trickle-down benefits for local firms and ensure further research into GM salmon and how best to grow it, according to Henry Clifford, vice-president of marketing and sales at AquaBounty Technologies, the US biotechnology company that developed the fish, dubbed AquAdvantage salmon, which grows twice as fast as wild salmon.
The project is based in Panama because of the country's long-standing policy support for aquaculture and GM organisms, says Clifford.
He adds that all employees at the Panama research site are local researchers and that one of the reasons the company decided to establish its facility there was because of its "large pool of experienced biologists and production managers with many years of successful experience managing aquaculture operations".
The project is already bringing new technologies and knowledge to Panama, the company claims.
"Ever since the project began in 2009, R&D professionals from the local Panamanian authorities have been intimately involved in the oversight of our project," says Clifford. "So there is a process in which AquaBounty is transferring technology and know-how to local Panamanian scientists, researchers and other professionals."
If the FDA approves the salmon's import, AquaBounty will request Panama's permission to convert the research facility into a production one — but it is likely to continue R&D activities, too.
"For example, we might work with the local feed manufacturer to develop better feed formulations for our salmon," says Clifford.
The company also expects local firms to benefit.
"As aquaculture projects develop in Panama, there are tangible trickle-down economic benefits for ancillary support businesses such as feed mill and packing plants," says Clifford.
In a draft environmental assessment published in December 2012 , the FDA stated that "food from AquAdvantage salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from [the fish]".
It also said there was no significant threat to the environment when the fish are grown in landlocked tanks.
The FDA's official public consultation period on that report, one of the last steps in the approval process, concluded on 26 April.
"We have received no indication from the FDA on how long it will take to process all the comments," Clifford tells SciDev.Net. "We are hoping for an approval before the end of the year."
Giovanni Lauri, director of the Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama (ARAP), tells SciDev.Net that the FDA's approval could boost investment in the country from firms looking to use transgenic animals for food.
"Panama is open to this kind of research as long as companies meet the requirements stated by our laws" regarding food security and environmental impact, he adds.
For Lauri, AquaBounty's work also shows that food produced in half the time — as the GM salmon grows twice as fast — could help to tackle hunger and overfishing.
To minimise the risk of potential environmental harm, the GM salmon are all sterile females and are only reared in the company's land-based production facilities in the town of Boquete, in the highlands of west Panama.
And at ARAP's request, all the fish that AquaBounty produces must at present be culled.
But there are fears that if the transgenic salmon ever got into natural waterways it could breed with existing fish and cause unknown consequences.
For example, a study published last month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that breeding the GM salmon with a closely related species of wild brown trout can produce a competitive, fast-growing fish that can outcompete both wild and GM versions.
Luisa Araúz, a lawyer at the Environmental Advocacy Centre in Panama, an NGO that offers legal support on green issues to civil society groups, has been investigating whether AquaBounty Technologies and Panama's environmental authorities were taking due care to prevent any environmental harm.
Although environmental assessments of AquaBounty's salmon have found minimal risks so far, Araúz says "our worry is that from the minimal risk could come a catastrophe if these fish escape" to natural habitats.
"We want the authorities to be vigilant," she tells SciDev.Net.
Opening the floodgates
Richard Pretto, an independent consultant on aquaculture who has worked in this field for the public and private sectors in Panama over the last 40 years, is confident that the FDA will grant final approval.
"The FDA is taking its time because if it approves the salmon, other species like tilapia and trout could follow. But the United States can't keep opposing [GM fish as a source of food] because they themselves have been leaders in this technology," Pretto tells SciDev.Net.
If the FDA decides against approval, this would be a drawback for the science, although he adds that the development of GM fish "is unstoppable now and other countries like China and Brazil will go on with their own research".
Clifford says that FDA approval "would signal to the world, and to other developers and researchers of genetically modified animals, as well as the regulatory authorities charged with overseeing them, that when properly and responsibly implemented and managed to minimise the risks, this technology is safe for the consumer and safe for the environment.
"There are a substantial number of companies and R&D organisations with GM animals already in development who are observing with great interest our FDA application."
If approval is granted, he adds, it would incentivise other companies to continue developing their products, with the knowledge that GM food animals can be regulated and commercialised in much the same way that GM plants have been in the past 15 years.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1047 (2013)