by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Wishing for the extinction of a species seems like a rather heartless act, but what if that species has serious potential to harm people’s health? What if it has the potential to damage the evironment? What if that species was man-made? Such is the question now before the FDA as it ponders the fate of the first genetically-modified animal – AquaBounty’s GMO salmon.
For the first time ever, GMO technology has been used to create an animal product. Until now, GMO technologies have only been applied to plant crops. And like its GMO plant brethren, AquaBounty’s GMO salmon has environmentalists and health advocates alike questioning the effects of the so-called “Frankenfish” on our health and on our planet.
“There are no independent long-term studies to investigate potential health effects. That’s one of the problems, the health ramifications just aren’t known,” said Dr. Samantha Chilcote, a fisheries biologist and salmon ecologist who works as an independent consultant. “In fact, GMO salmon are being regulated as an animal drug because of the genetic concoction that the eggs are injected with.”
That different, and arguably lower, regulatory standard than ordinary food has some major consequences when it comes to testing its safety, Chilcote said. The FDA relies on studies provided by the company, AquaBounty, for effect analyses. Those studies that have been conducted have such low sample sizes that no statistically significant conclusions can be drawn from them. For example, tests to look at human allergic reactions to the fish only used six fish. The company has only made limited data publicly available at this time but some result suggest differences:
- Six chemicals (folic acid, niacin, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc) are present in genetically engineered salmon at values that differ by more than 10 percent from conventional farmed salmon, indicating potential food quality differences among the two kinds of fish.
- The omega 3/omega 6 ratio in genetically engineered salmon is more than 12 percent less than in conventional farmed salmon, a difference that could be of interest to seafood consumers looking to maximize omega 3 levels in their own diets.
- Data indicate there may be higher levels of allergy-producing compounds in genetically engineered salmon, meaning the fish may pose a greater food allergy threat. Given the limited sample sizes, more study is needed to definitively rule out this concern.
- Levels of Insulin-like Growth Hormone (IGF-1) are elevated in genetically engineered salmon compared to conventional farmed salmon. The long-term health impacts of this are unclear, but IGF-1 is a known carcinogen.
Besides the risk to our health, GMO salmon has the potential to wreck the stability of wild, natural salmon. The FDA only approved the environmental impact analysis of raising the GMO salmon once the company changed its rearing practices. Currently, those rearing practices include an egg production factory off Prince Edward Island but they will then be shipped to a land based rearing pen in Panama to grow to market size. But as we’ve seen with other GMO practices, these precautions can be changed at a moments notice and often times under the radar of public scrutiny from back room deals with regulators or shady legislative maneuvers.
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest that the release of just 60 GMO salmon could eradicate wild Atlantic salmon populations of 60,000 fish in less than 40 fish generations. AquaBounty claims the females produced are sterile, but some tests indicate that up to 5 percent of the GMO salmon are able to reproduce. In fact, according to data the company submitted to FDA, several research trials did not achieve complete sterilization – 6 out of 20 lots were found to have less than complete sterilization. Lastly, AquaBounty claims that any escaped salmon will have a low probability of survival in the wild. However, even FDA scientists agree that there is no data to support this claim and it is a big concern.
This is the first genetically modified animal which will be marketed for human consumption in the US. It will not be labelled as GMO. It takes away consumer choice for wild fish and sets a dangerous precedent for future regulation of GMO animals. Considering the potential dangers to our health and the environment, Chilcote suggests another way to ensure there is enough salmon in the world to supply consumers’ appetite for the meaty fish:
“All the money which is being put to developing these GMO salmon would be much more sustainably spent saving wild salmon populations. Salmon are a sort of canary on the coal mine, or key indicator species for the condition of both ocean and river conditions. They are keystone species which provide food for large mammals in the ocean and carry marine derived nutrients to freshwater ecosystems, supporting growth in multiple levels of the ecosystem from riparian vegetation to juvenile fish to bears to eagles. They are culturally important to many Native American tribes and are economically important to many coastal areas and fisherman. They support a huge industry. Shipping them to indoor facilities in another country where terrestrial landscapes must be industrialized to raise a marine animal takes away from traditional cultures and livelihoods.”