If you happened to catch my column last week, you’ll recall that I wrote about the bid by biotech firm AquaBounty to get its fast-growing, genetically engineered Atlantic salmon approved by the Food and Drug Administration. I discussed the company’s submission of sloppy research and the FDA’s disregard of public comment on the matter.

Since Maine is a traditional fishing state and Atlantic salmon are native to our waters, should this transgenic fish be green-lighted to enter our food supply and environment, it will impact our state directly.

If approved, this would be the first genetically altered animal approved for human consumption.

Today, I pick up where I left off by examining AquaBounty’s claims that its transgenic fish is safe to eat, won’t escape into the wild and will help solve world hunger.

 

Do for-profit companies really care about the world’s hungry?

One of the main arguments AquaBounty makes in advocating for approval of its genetically altered salmon is that the fish, which has growth hormones spliced into its genetic code that force it to grow twice as fast as normal salmon, will help feed the world’s hungry. Sounds like a laudable goal, but is it plausible?

In her recently updated and reissued book “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (University of California Press), New York University nutrition scientist Marion Nestle writes, “because developing countries lack a viable market for such products, few agricultural biotechnology companies can afford to invest in solutions to the food problems of the developing world.”

Translation: For-profit companies are out to make a buck, and poor people (and their governments) don’t have the cash to pay for high-tech food.

Nestle goes on to talk about the much-hyped Golden Rice, a genetically engineered strain that its producer promises to cure Vitamin A deficiencies in the developing world. Nestle suggests that should the rice ever make it to market (which is a big if), it won’t be a humanitarian gesture but a public relations ploy designed to gain consumer acceptance of genetically engineered foods and refute arguments that corporations only care about the bottom line.

 

Is it reasonable to assume a new organism won’t escape into the wild?

AquaBounty has repeatedly claimed its salmon doesn’t pose a threat to wild salmon because it will be raised in inland fish farms and will never escape.

But fisheries experts disagree. The Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington joined 24 other fisheries advocacy groups, including two others in Maine, in sending the FDA a letter opposing the approval of AquaBounty’s salmon.

“Our mission is to secure the future for fishing communities in Eastern Maine,” said Aaron Dority, who directs the organization’s groundfish initiatives. “And we see genetic engineering as a threat on a number of fronts.”

Dority said the organization is concerned about the pollution that results from fish farms (basically a form of factory farming done in the water) and asserted that it will be “only a matter of time” before the altered fish escapes into the wild.

The tendency for nature to wrangle out of human-imposed confines has been demonstrated numerous times with genetically modified food crops.

John Jemison, a scientist who works with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension and serves on the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, has conducted a number of field studies exploring how genetically engineered crops behave in the real world.

In 2002, he published research in the AgBioForum journal exploring the likelihood of genetically engineered corn transferring its altered genes to non-GMO corn grown nearby. His research and similar studies show that gene transfers regularly take place.

Bob St. Peter, who heads Food for Maine’s Future, a group that advocates for local rather than corporate control of the food supply, noted that “when you radically alter an organism and make it do something it doesn’t do naturally, the consequences will be unforeseen. You have to assume at some point this salmon is going to enter the ecosystem.”

 

Should we rely on corporations to determine what is safe?

AquaBounty claims its salmon is safe to eat and fundamentally the same as wild salmon. But should we believe AquaBounty in the absence of independent scientific research?

While scientists who receive compensation from the corporations that profit from genetically altered and patented food have done the bulk of the research on biotech food, the few independently funded studies paint a grim picture.

In the book “The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply — and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself” (Broadway), Robyn O’Brien conducts a thorough review of the independent research conducted on GMOs.

At one point, O’Brien writes about the only human study conducted with genetically engineered soy and published in 2004 by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The study showed that portions of the altered gene in transgenic soybeans “were transferred into the DNA of the bacteria that live in the human gut,” O’Brien wrote.

She goes on to write, “as disturbing as the human study may be, I’m even more troubled by a 2005 animal study conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Irina Ermakova discovered that more than half the offspring (55.6 percent) of rats fed on genetically modified soy died in the first three weeks of life.” This death rate compared to only 9 percent of rats fed conventional soy and 6.8 percent of rats fed no soy, she wrote.

Currently, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimates that 70 to 80 percent of all processed foods sold in this country contain genetically engineered ingredients. Since the FDA does not require that these genetically manipulated foods be labeled, the only way to avoid them is to eat certified organic food.

Despite this lack of labeling, many health and medical groups caution against the consumption of specific genetically engineered foods (such as milk containing genetically engineered bovine growth hormone) or recommend that people avoid all food containing foreign genes.

One such organization arguing for complete avoidance of genetically modified food is the American Academy of Environmental Medicine.

In its position paper on the topic, the academy writes: “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.”

Scientist Jemison argues for more independent research.

“We should be doing much more testing on all of this because there’s bound to be unintended consequences,” Jemison said. “And we ought to ask the question: Just because we can do this, should we do it?”

This conservative approach advocated by Jemison is in stark contrast to the current regulatory process, which follows more of a “shoot first, ask questions later” model.

In contrast to how these issues have been handled in America, European countries have taken a more cautious approach in line with what Jemison sees as prudent. Many European countries ban the planting of specific GMO crops, and labels are required to alert consumers when foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.

When I asked St. Peter why Europeans have taken a different approach to this risky food, he offered an interesting response.

“Countries in Europe tend to still have food traditions and cultures,” St. Peter said. “In this country, we have food culture, but it’s a corporate, fast-food culture. So Europeans understand how these technologies threaten their traditional way of life. We’re not really asking any questions because we’ve lost that connection to the food we eat.”

Will AquaBounty’s salmon become the latest example of America’s unquestioning embrace of industrial food? Or will regulators finally decide we should look before we leap?

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com