The US Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve AquaBounty Technologies’ AquAdvantage salmon for consumption in the country sees the collision of two highly controversial subjects, namely aquaculture and genetic modification.

Individually, these are two of the most contentious issues the food industry has to grapple with and their combination arguably represents a perfect storm.

It is little wonder the landmark ruling – the first instance of a genetically engineered animal being approved for human consumption – has attracted such fierce debate.

GM and GM labelling are issues which have constantly commanded huge media and public interest. In particular, the debate over GM labelling has been raging in the US. The FDA has said GM salmon – as is the case with GM crops in the US – will not have to be labelled as containing genetically modified ingredients. Labelling food as being “free from GM” will be at the manufacturer’s or retailer’s discretion.

The announcement shortly after the ruling that Costco and the Red Lobster restaurant chain have both committed not to sell the GM salmon was unsurprising given how the GM debate has progressed. 

Their decisions were relayed by Friends of the Earth, which is leading a coalition campaigning for mandatory GM labelling on food. While some food manufacturers have been reticent about publicly supporting GM, in spite of the advantages it can potentially make to productivity and reliability of food supply, retailers have often taken a particularly cautious public stance.

Companies clearly fear associations with a subject which is quite simply PR poison. Making a strong public statement on a product which is insignificant at this stage in volume terms is arguably an easy way to boost a company’s image as a responsible corporate citizen that listens to its consumers. But given the permissive regulatory environment on GM in the US, GM ingredients already have a massive presence in the market and as a consequence within the systems of many of companies which have said they will boycott the GM salmon. 

Companies and policymakers have some tough questions to address in relation to GM and specifically on GM labelling. There are clearly sound ethical reasons for clearly labelling such products – and arguably making that labelling mandatory.

Whether or not the GM alters the nutritional profile of the food – this latest ruling says it does not – consumers surely have a right to know where their product comes from. There are reasons beyond nutrition why consumers might choose not to eat a GM product. In these days where traceability and transparency in supply chains are seen as moral prerequisites for food companies, could it be any other way?

And yet, if the public’s response to GM and their reasons for mistrusting it are irrational, food companies, along with politicians, academics and others who can lead opinion, may have a further responsibility to address those qualms.

The reason why this further responsibility is important is clear as COP 21 begins in Paris today.

While there are distinct reasons why both GM and aquaculture have attracted so much media attention and concern, the underlying reason is essentially the same. Both speak to the challenge of meeting growing demand for food through the intensification of food production, with the arguments centred on whether they represent examples of sustainable intensification.

What companies and policymakers do and say around these issues needs to be rational and evidence based. Media sensationalism and over-simplification are unhelpful and the more so if food retailers and producers are disproportionately swayed by their effect on public sensibilities.

Listening to stakeholders, notably consumers, is of course vital but if public concern on an issue is revealed through science and research to be unfounded, there is an equal responsibility to try to persuade consumers and regain their trust on the matter in question.

The health arguments over GM have always seemed rather irrational to many, given the process of altering the genetics of crops through plant breeding has existed for centuries. GM has simply made it much faster. 

While the FDA salmon ruling relates to food safety, it is other environmental and biodiversity issues which have been given most prominence by campaigners since the FDA decision.  

However, it could be argued that the threat to biodiversity is not the unique preserve of GM but also could occur as a consequence of conventionally bred crops. Human beings have been interfering with natural selection in the animal and plant worlds since they first began to grow crops and rear animals for food. GM is artificial selection writ large but, as its defenders often stress, in principle it is no different from what has been done in the past.

With technologies such as GM, mankind does have the potential to do more damage to ecosystems and biodiversity more quickly – and on a larger scale – but today we also understand the threats rather better. One thing that the GM debate clearly shows is that such technologies will not be adopted without due thought and discussion.

The FDA’s rigorous and extended review serves to underline the point and should give the public confidence that adequate safeguards exist to ensure new technology is sustainable and safe.

However, as campaigners are fond of telling the world leaders gathered in Paris, time is of the essence. Not a moment can be wasted given the extent of the climate change threat. 

GM’s capacity to work through potential genetic solutions to changes to agricultural environments and conditions, created as climate change takes hold, so much faster than conventional breeding may become indispensable in the coming years. 

Champions of GM suggest the technology can and will have a positive role to play in meeting future food security challenges, and the same is certainly true for aquaculture which also suffers from heavy criticism from activists on sustainability grounds.

Aquaculture does have some hefty environmental and human sustainability issues to address but, as with GM, it is hard not to see its potential to help in meeting pressing food security challenges to come. Indeed, the case for aquaculture is even more persuasive.

The intensive production of protein has unquestionably caused huge environmental damage and the focus activists give the issue is entirely justified.

However, the types of protein that have been most damaging and most controversial are those science is also revealing to be problematic from a human health and dietary standpoint, namely red meat. The potential for aquaculture to provide intensive production of protein with a far healthier dietary profile is clear.

In this sense, those carrying the banner for aquaculture, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), and proponents of GM salmon, carry a responsibility that goes further than their duty to advocate responsibly for their own businesses. Their success in winning hearts and minds is critical to the overall food security challenge.

Responses and positions should be objective, rational and evidence-based. If GM technology can make aquaculture more productive and efficient, it should be warmly welcomed and certainly not feared.