October 13, 2010

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


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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


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


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