by Craig Weatherby
You've probably heard about the recent hearings to decide the status of genetically modified farmed fish.
The FDA advisory panel that met last month decided to delay a non-binding recommendation of approval or denial to actual agency officials, pending more information.
The GM salmon, called AquAdvantage, grow twice as fast, and according to the maker (AquaBounty), they eat from one-tenth to one-third less feed than conventional farmed salmon need to reach harvest weight.
One key concern of Dr. Hansen is the substantially higher levels of growth hormone in GM fish, which the evaluators apparently tried to distort (reduce the gap between GM and regular salmon) by manipulating the data.
His second concern was the FDA's failure to deal with unpredictable allergens in GM salmon.
No one disputes that normally non-allergenic proteins from common foods can become allergenic—unpredictably—when generated in GM foods by insertion of the genes that create them… which is exactly what was done to make the AquAdvantage GM salmon.
But the panel blithely ignored this, and relied on the fact that the proteins are not normally allergenic in chinook (king) salmon. The same protein is created in the GM fish by the king salmon genes inserted into their genome, and may be allergenic in that context.
Genetic engineering: A potentially useful agro-tool needing adult supervision
Our minds remain open on genetic engineering of foods per se … as opposed to the ways it's been done and regulated.
We deplore the egregious practices of some agri-businesses, and the often-inadequate oversight exercised by government agencies and Congress.
People concerned about the regulatory environment can balance the power of the agro-political axis that profits directly or indirectly from commercialization of GM crops… by acting individually (write to Congress and food makers and retailers) and collectively (join and/or donate to credible, scientifically sound advocacy groups such as Center for Food Safety… click here to see their GM salmon petition.
One the positive side, GM technology can be a crop-saver when speed is of the essence… as in the rescue of Hawaiian's entire papaya crop from rapid oblivion by strategic planting of a disease-resistant GM papaya.
And people don't seem to realize that old-fashioned plant and animal breeding also yields unpredictable genome changes … many more than gene splicing produces.
Traditional breeding also routinely yields crops with higher levels of their (normally innocuous) natural toxins, lower levels of nutrients, and the reverse.
Many people are also surprised to learn that supermarket produce and grain products—organic as well as conventional—grow from seeds selected by processes that generate myriad random gene mutations.
To create seeds that will yield crops with desired traits, seeds are exposed to radiation or chemical toxins, causing thousands of random mutations. The seeds are then planted, and the ones that yield crops with desired traits eventually become commercial seeds for organic and conventional crops.
So it really doesn't make sense to get too exercised about gene splicing as a generic technology… just as radiation can save lives or destroy them.
But it is only sensible to keep a close eye on the designs of public companies—driven by intense pressure to boost the quarterly profit statement—operating under an overly friendly FDA.
Tighter oversight needed
We are in the infancy of understanding the ecological and intra-species ripple effects of spreading GM food crops and animals far and wide.
Accordingly, GM foods must be held to stricter testing standards than they typically have... especially in the U.S.
Assumptions cannot be allowed when it comes to food safety and implications for the species being altered and the overall ecology… especially when the genes being introduced are not natural to the affected plant or animal.
The power of this technology for good or ill warrants a degree of caution and diligence that's not been common at FDA or Congress.
We'll keep you posted.