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GM salmon: what to think?

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a fish more fishy than most?

a fish more fishy than most?

I get regular emails from worthy folks asking me to sign some petition or other relating to some political or social injustice or outrage, and sometimes I sign, but mostly I pass because I don’t the details and haven’t the time or energy to research the bonafides. Rarely, though, do I sit up and think ‘that’s not quite right’. That’s what happened when I received an invitation to complain about the USA’s new ‘fake salmon’ or ‘frankenfish’:

Attack of the Frankenfish

The US is about to treat the world to the first genetically modified meat: a mutant salmon that could wipe out wild salmon populations and threaten human health. Unless we stop it, this Frankenfish could open the floodgates for biotech meat around the world. Click below to build 1 million voices to stop it: Sign the petition.

Sounds pretty scary, but I’m well aware that, like climate change, the GMO debate tends to divide along politico-ideological lines, which makes me very keen to get my head out of the rhetoric and into the science. So let’s investigate further. By the way, for a very useful insight into the fraught domestic (US) politics of this issue, this article is a must-read. It comes from an organisation called Genetic Literacy Project, ‘where science trumps ideology’ – a good place to start if you want to inform yourself about the science.

The USA’s FDA gave its approval to genetically modified ‘AquaAdvantage’ salmon on December 26 last year. It’s likely that the date – buried in the midst of the holiday season – was deliberately chosen to avoid controversy as much as possible. This was indeed a landmark decision, the first GM animal ever approved for human consumption, and the forces opposing this development are loud and strong. They include not only the anti-GM organic food producers and consumers but the Alaskan fishing industry, which believes it could be wiped out by these new fast-growing farm fish.

The technology is hardly brand new, involving the modification of Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon growth hormone as well as genetic material from a large eel-like fish called an ocean pout, enabling it to reach maturity at a faster rate. One anti-GM site has described the increased rate as 30-fold, but a probably more accurate view comes from this essay, which claims only a 4-fold increase, based on the developer’s own assessment. However, this (clearly anti-biotech) site claims that AquaAdvantage’s claims about faster growth are completely bogus, and that ‘two major commercial growers have said that their salmon grow as fast as or faster than GE salmon’. Trying to arrive at the truth here is a pretty thankless task.

The process of approval has taken years, and the delays appear to have been more politically than scientifically motivated. The first viable salmon carrying these modifications was created in 1989, and the altered species entered the federal approval process in 1995, and as one commentator says, they’ve been swimming upstream ever since. The FDA released a preliminary FONSI (Finding Of No Significant Impact) report on the salmon back on May 4 2012, and I’m not sure as yet why it took another 7 months for the final approval (which is still subject to public comment and feedback). On the ‘threat to human health’ claims of the petitioners, the FDA had this to say:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded 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 triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantageSalmon.

By the way, the tern ‘triploid’ here means, essentially, that the salmon have been rendered sterile through gene manipulation. They’re normally diploid.

Should we take the FDA’s word for all this? What are the health concerns of the anti-GM lobby? Well, let me provide a list, garnered from a few anti-GM sites.

1. Farmed fish swim in their own waste, and require regular doses of antibiotics to stay healthy (obviously this is an argument against farmed fish in general not just farmed GM fish).

2. The GM salmon are less healthy than wild or regular farmed Atlantic salmon. Studies have shown that they contain lower levels of heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than either form of regular salmon. These fish are also notably deficient in certain vitamins.

3. There’s a big concern that genetically modifying salmon could increase the incidence of seafood allergies among the public.

Well, actually, that’s it. There are other, genuine if possibly overblown, concerns about fish, in spite of triploidy, escaping the confines of the farm and interbreeding with other salmon, but this doesn’t directly affect human health. All we really have is the possibility of increased allergenic reactions and the possibility that we won’t get as many nutrients from these fish as from regular fish – hardly a scary issue. Oh and of course there’s the unstated but always looming notion that frankenfish or frankenfoods generally will create monster diseases/mutants that we’ll be unable to contain and which will wipe out human life as we know it, but I won’t address that here.

GMOs and allergies

One of the major consequences of introducing a new gene into an organism’s genome is the production of a new protein. Every protein has some possibility, however theoretical, of bringing on an allergic reaction,so it’s undoubtedly important to monitor responses to new proteins. And it’s true that no amount of monitoring of a new protein’s allergenic potential, before a product containing that protein is released to consumers, will be absolutely foolproof. However, it’s one thing to say that we can’t be sure there won’t be isolated cases of allergic reactions, and it’s altogether another thing to assume that allergic reactions will inevitably result from GMOs. Certainly in countries that have taken to GMOs – the USA for example – we’re not seeing any dire consequences. More importantly, perhaps, we’re learning a lot more about proteins and allergies, partly as a result of the testing and monitoring of GMOs, than we ever knew before. The database on allergens has become more extensive and detailed.

By studying the characteristics of known allergens, researchers have come up with a profile or set of criteria, common to these allergens, that they can test new GMOs against. In fact, because GMOs involve an alteration that produces a handful of new proteins at most, they’re much easier to screen in this way than a new type of fruit which may contain any number of new and generally less predictable proteins. The introduction of kiwi fruit to new markets resulted in allergic reactions, though only some years after they were introduced, thus underlining the need for long-term monitoring of all sources of unfamiliar proteins.

GMOs are subject to numerous rigorous reviews before being released to the public, far more than occurs with organic foods, and if there’s the slightest whiff of a potential allergen, they won’t be released. And not all GM foods produce new proteins, because the modification may involve simply switching off a ‘problem’ gene by incorporating a reversed copy of it.

Is there something especially dangerous about GM salmon, or seafood in general, and allergies? Well, very recently, Consumers Union, apparently a US-based consumer advocacy organisation, blasted the FDA for not adequately researching the potential for the fish to cause allergies.

FDA has allowed this fish to move forward based on tests of allergenicity of only six engineered fish—tests that actually did show an increase in allergy-causing potential,” stated Michael Hansen PhD, Senior Scientist with Consumers Union.

A more detailed critique of the FDA’s decision and its internal processes, from an organisation called Food and Water Watch, ‘a tireless champion in the fight to preserve our right to the untainted fruits of the earth’, is very much worth a read, as it addresses sample sizes, the nutritional content of the GM salmon, the lack of fisheries and environmental expertise within the FDA, the commercial viability of the product, and concerns about carcinogens and allergens. If you’re looking for a coherent and articulate presentation of the anti-GM salmon argument, you’ll find it here.

My mind remains open on the matter. The anti-GM lobby can only speak of potential dangers, though they shouldn’t be dismissed. However, the claim that this FDA decision, not yet final, ‘opens the floodgates’ for GM seafood and livestock sounds pretty unconvincing considering the long, winding upstream journey of AquaAdvantage salmon.

One thing I will say though, is that GM products should be labelled as such. The fact that this doesn’t occur in the USA amazes me considering the strength and independent-mindedness of consumer groups there. Even in Australia GM labelling is limited at best. Detailed labelling of all foods is, IMHO, essential to critical evaluation and consumer choice.

Finally, what always gets me about the people opposed to these developments is the anti-science bias. It may be the case that these salmon haven’t been tested rigorously enough (I’m sceptical though), but the call is usually not for more rigorous testing, it’s for abandonment of the whole enterprise. Similarly the negatives are highlighted far more than the positives, and solutions to those negatives are dismissed. And the unholy alliance between environmentalists and protectionist politicians concerned to maintain what is surely an unsustainable wild fishing industry strikes me as puzzling if not bizarre.

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Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2013 at 10:58 pm

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