Frankenstein-Fish on Your Dinner Plate?

by Katie on February 20, 2013

It seems that we hear about genetically engineered (GE) foods all the time lately. As more and more foods are modified in the lab, activist and consumer groups continue to raise safety concerns and push to label such items in the products we buy. So why care about GE salmon if we are eating GE corn all the time? Well, right now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering approving  GE salmon for human consumption. If this proposal is approved, AquaBounty Technologies, the company creating the GE fish often called Frankenstein Fish by critics, will have the rights to grow and sell the first ever genetically engineered animal intended for human consumption!

What is a GMO?

A GMO is any organism that is created using genetic manipulation techniques. Using these lab techniques, new genes can be added or existing genes can be removed thus allowing the scientist to control what traits the organism will exhibit. Humans are no stranger to playing god when it comes to the environment and organisms around them and as such, GMOs have been around since the 1970’s. and commercialized since the 1980’s. This includes organisms used in research, for food crops and production of pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals such as insulin and even enzymes for laundry detergent.

The GE salmon from AquaBounty, officially known as AquaAdvantage salmon, can reach market weight twice as fast as wild salmon thanks to a growth hormone gene borrowed from the Chinook salmon species. This means higher production efficiency for AquaBounty but for the rest of us this means serious ethical, environmental, and health concerns.

Are GE salmon a good idea?

Concerns over GMOs raised for consumer use fall mainly into a few categories: risk of ecological damage, safety for human health, and animal welfare issues.

Ecological Impact or Nature Finds a Way

Although AquaBounty claims that its GE fish are mostly unable to reproduce and will be kept in inland tanks far from wild populations, its important to note that it wasn’t an exaggeration when the movie Jurassic Park assured us that ‘nature finds a way’.  If this proposal is accepted, AquaBounty will be just the beginning. Plans for GE tilapia, and GE trout are already in the pipeline but the real danger is in the new precedent for approving future GE agricultural animals. It is not a big leap to envision a future in which AquaBounty is allowed to sell GE salmon eggs to other fisheries that have looser standards. Once GE salmon accidentally make it into the waterways of the world the possibility of disturbing wild salmon populations and the ecosystems that support them becomes a real threat.

Fish Farm

Now I’m not saying that GE salmon farms are akin to breeding dinosaurs on an island -turned theme park but the point is, just because most of the fish are sterile and kept away from wild populations doesn’t mean that the risk of GE fish contaminating the wild is negligible. Undoing the ecological damage from this could be a long and painful process that is best avoided.

 

Human Health

GE salmon reach market size in half the time—great for AquaBounty—but nothing in life comes without a cost. The Frankenfish have developmental and hormonal problems, as well as high levels of IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor–which is thought to increase risk of certain cancers in humans). Reports of potential allergic reactions to the fish were conducted with only 6 to 12 individual GE specimens and, pollution from intensive fish farming can contaminate important water sources.

Animal Welfare

And lets not forget the animal welfare grievances. Although welfare concerns are not unique to the potential GE salmon fisheries,

GE fish have problems developing healthy respiratory systems and have limited mobility. An expert panel set up by the Royal Society of Canada has concluded that significant health and welfare problems are the norm in GE fish production.

Isn’t our food supply regulated?

The U.S. FDA is responsible for ensuring that any organism that may enter or alter the food supply is safe for human consumption. However, the process for approving GE food proposals has long been criticized as problematic. Currently, the process for FDA approval relies heavily on data from the companies that produce and profit from the GE products with practically no long-term, independent monitoring of safety. The current application for AquaAdvantage salmon is based predominantly on safety data provided by experiments done by AquaBounty. Approval of GE salmon may set the precedent for future GE animals approval so the direction of this FDA decision is paramount for ensuring future safety.

Overwhelming outcry from the public and activist watchdog groups has caused the US. FDA to extend the deadline for public commenting on the proposal set forth by AquaBounty until April 26, 2013. This commenting period is a time for concerned citizens and groups to voice their opinion about the proposal to allow growing and selling genetically engineered fish for commercial sale and consumption. If you are interested in voicing your opinion you can fill out this petition set forth by the Food and Water Watch organization or you can comment directly on the FDA website.

A moment to consider your food

The use of GMO products in agriculture and industry has long been debated but the truth remains that, although GMOs have a host of environmental and ecological concerns, they are fast becoming an important and reliable food source around the world. I mean after all, GE salmon can make fresh fish affordable for many Americans and reduce over-fishing of wild populations. This post barely demonstrates the tip of the iceberg with GMO food policy and it not meant to simply demonize GMOS.  However, as technologies move forward, ever advancing and changing how industry works, I urge you to always consider where your food comes from and how it came to be on your table.