It took two decades for the first genetically engineered animal to get approved for your dinner. Now that AquAdvantage salmon—with DNA engineered from three species—is moving forward, more genetically modified meat is likely to follow. But it's not clear how long that will take.
Outside the United States, bacon might be next. Researchers at Seoul National University tweaked a gene in pigs that makes them super-muscly, yielding more pork per giant pig butt. Now, the scientists hope to sell their modified pig sperm to farmers in China, where engineered food can sometimes move to market more quickly.
Unlike the newly approved salmon, the pig's DNA is simply "edited," taking out a single gene rather than bringing in new genetic material from another animal. That might make it easier for regulators to approve it.
Still, in the U.S., it's not clear when, exactly, more GM meat might make it to market. Consumers hate the idea; the FDA received two million comments about the salmon, more than they've gotten for any other single issue. Dozens of supermarkets and restaurants, from Safeway to Red Lobster, have said that they won't buy the fish once it's available.
The complicated, ultra-long regulatory process means few companies are willing to try to bring genetically modified meat to market. "If you don't have a fixed timeline to get a regulatory decision back, it provides a very unpredictable pathway for a company that might want to commercialize," says Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal scientist at the University of California, Davis. "When there's no obvious market and it's going to cost—I think it cost them $85 million in 20 years—it's not exactly an attractive path to follow."
So why bother? In the case of the salmon, the new farmed fish uses fewer resources to grow; it eats much less food and can be grown in tanks on land, something that's normally too energy intensive.
For other animals, genetic engineering for disease resistance could also drastically save resources, and might be one way to help meet a skyrocketing global demand for meat more sustainably.
"We lose 20% of all animal protein to disease," says Van Eenennaam. "I think disease resistant animals fit into every single sustainability box you want to mention—animals don't suffer, they don't use antibiotics, their productivity's better. There's generally a positive attitude to breeding disease resistant anything, and we could actually make a difference with this technique in a way that we couldn't using conventional breeding."
Now, animals engineered for non-food purposes—pharmaceuticals—tend get approval more quickly because the industry can afford the process. "That's an area where there's potential to have more investment because pharmaceutical production is more lucrative than agriculture," says Van Eenennaam. The FDA recently approved a GM chicken that can lay medicine in its eggs. Last year, they approved a drug-producing transgenic rabbit; in 2009, they approved a goat.
And, of course, various GM plants like corn and soy have been approved for years—also because the companies behind the seeds had the money to go through the process. "They still have a very ridiculously expensive process to go through," says Van Eenennaam. "There's just large multinational corporations whereas animal breeding is mostly done by small companies in the public sector."
It's possible that GM food animals will become more common as the science improves—new genome-editing tools are making it easier to change DNA without introducing genes from different species. It's a technique that's more exact and mimics variations that would happen naturally after years of breeding.
Van Eenennaam, for example, worked on a project that used newer tools to produce a cow without horns, so calves don't have to go through a painful process of de-horning. Because of the method used, and what's known about the safety of the animal, she argues that it doesn't make sense to go through another 20-year process of evaluation.
Another research project is using precision genome editing to produce pigs that, in theory, will be able to resist a deadly swine virus.
Van Eenennaam believes that genetically engineered animals should be evaluated on a case by case basis—proportional to the actual risk—rather than simply based on the fact that they were genetically engineered.
"I would hope that it's going to be more science-based and less process based, which is what it has been up until this point," she says.
The FDA can't legally disclose the products it's evaluating, so it's hard to say what might be next. But Van Eenennaam, like others studying genetic engineering, is hoping that the next animal will have an easier path.
"Really the fast-growing salmon was just fast-growing salmon," she says. "It's not the first fast-growing animal we've bred, trust me. We do that all the time as breeders, that's pretty much what we breed for. So it didn't make much sense to have such a long and drawn out regulatory process."