October 13, 2010

Avery Yale Kamila: Case for genetically altered salmon doesn't hold water


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.

click image to enlarge

Is it reasonable to assume that genetically engineered salmon will never escape to interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon, shown here? Fisheries advocacy groups, including three in Maine, sent the FDA a letter opposing approval.

Press Herald file

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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