Genetically Modified Salmon Debate

Debate is currently raging around the world as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US considers the approval on the first genetically modified (GM) animal for human consumption. Called the AquAdvantage Atlantic Salmon, developed by AquaBounty Technologies Inc., the animal has had the genetic material of two other fish plus some synthetic DNA added to its genetic structure: the growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and “anti-freeze” gene from the ocean pout, an eel-like marine organism.

The fish is designed to grow at twice the rate or a normal salmon (up to five times, by some reports), reaching the market in a year and a half instead of three years. While an atlantic salmon normally produces its growth hormone only seasonally, the genetically altered fish will produce the hormone all year long, the mechanism which makes it grow faster.

Controversy around the acceptance of this fish is deep. 11 senators, mostly from coastal states, have come together to urge the FDA to reject the altered fish. They say the agency is using the wrong process for evaluation and that they are deliberately leaving the public out of the discussion.

Even the traditional fishing industry is against the AquaBounty fish hitting the shelves and, if it is approved, they’ve called for the fish to be labeled as genetically modified. It’s little surprise the fishing industry would want the fish either off the table or labeled. In an interview with Underground Wellness, Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, has speculated on the very real possibility that FDA’s approval of the GM salmon could mean the death of the salmon industry. The FDA has already stated that it will not allow labeling of the GM salmon to distinguish it from conventional salmon. Considering the fact that more and more people are rejecting the idea of consuming genetically modified foods, people may stop eating salmon altogether in order to avoid exposure.

In fact, it seems the majority of the public are opposed to seeing GM salmon hit the market. In a Consumer Reports National Research Center poll, 60% of respondents said they would not buy milk or meat from GM animals. Nearly 80% in a Washington Post reader’s poll said they would not eat GM salmon due to health concerns and environmental risks. Similarly, a vote on CNN.com’s Eatocracy site which asked “Would you eat genetically modified salmon?”, 45.25% of the 56,795 respondents said “Not on your life” only 17.1% said the would “in a heartbeat”.

“Putting unlabeled, genetically altered salmon in the marketplace is simply irresponsible, and the FDA needs to strongly consider what impacts this will have before they approve this Frankenfish,” Lisa Murkowski, a Republican Senator from Alaska, told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. However, the FDA have stated that they can’t allow the labeling since they have found the altered fish to be identical to natural salmon. While AquaBounty’s Executive Director, President and CEO, Ronald Stotish, has said their GM Salmon is “based on more than two decades of scientific research, making it the most studied line of Atlantic salmon”, the science that is behind the decisions of the FDA is questionable.

First off, all the scientific evidence being analyzed by the FDA has been provided by AquaBounty. No third party research has been conducted. This means that all of the information on which the decision is being made has come from a one-sided source with an obvious agenda towards the fish’s approval. Ignoring this source of bias dooms the approval process from the get-go.

On top of this, an advisory committee to the FDA has rejected much of the science AquaBounty has submitted. The only member of the committee who had any experience with fish, Gary Thorgaard, completely disagreed with the FDA’s conclusion that the altered fish would pose no threat to the environment, and called for a full Environmental Impact Statement. Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union (they publish Consumer Reports) says, “The data and analysis of food safety risks from the AquAdvantage Salmon are so sloppy and inadequate that, if this were an undergraduate paper, it would get a failing grade. No self-respecting scientist could conclude that these data demonstrate that AquAdvantage salmon are safe to eat.”

The main concern about the fish is the possibility of it containing potentially dangerous hormones. Aquabounty was criticized by Dr. Hansen for using a detection method so lacking in sensitivity that it couldn’t pick up hormones in any fish at all. “This would be like the police using a radar gun that cannot detect speeds below 120 mph and concluding that there is no ‘relevant difference’ in the speed of cars versus bicycles,” Dr. Hansen told the committee. Yet, based on this evidence, the FDA has concluded the fish to be identical to normal fish.

The science gets even worse when it comes to their tests on the increased allergenicity of the altered fish. They found a 52% increase in reaction levels when the blood of allergic individuals was exposed to the GM fish — an unpredictable side effect of the genetic modification process and not the direct result of the inserted genetic material. However, this finding was ignored since it came only from the egg-laying fish and not the ones that would actually be eaten. When the fish that would actually be consumed were tested, a 20% increase in allergenicity was found. However, this test was only performed on six fish and consequently deemed not statistically significant.

“To base a conclusion of no additional risk on exactly six engineered fish, when those data themselves suggest a possible problem, is not responsible science or responsible risk assessment. FDA owes it to the thousands of Americans who are allergic to finfish to demand more data on the allergenicity of these engineered salmon from AquaBounty,” Hansen said.

This piece could go on and on about the shoddy science AquaBounty has provided and the corners the FDA are cutting in their quest to get the salmon pushed into the marketplace. There is so much information out there, so much evidence mounted against the approval of this Frankenfish and so many members of the public who are drastically opposed to it, it is a wonder the decision is even still on the table. At the end of the day, it needs to be asked who benefits from the introduction of a food that no one wants and which could have drastic effects on an important industry, as well as the health of the public. It is blatantly obvious at this point that when it comes to the decisions being made, the interest and safety of the public is a secondary consideration, if a consideration at all.

Would you eat a genetically-modified salmon? If not, would you stop eating salmon entirely in order to avoid buying it unknowingly?

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto. You can email him with questions at dugdeep alt gmail dot com.

Editor’s Review:

You know what…at the rate we’re going, there isn’t enough food to feed the Earth’s population. We were never meant to reach this many people. We are over-fishing, over-poluting, over-using every resource on this planet. We need to find a new way to feed ourselves. I think that if we are irresponsible enough to do this to pur planet, we need to be responsible enough to find a way to sustain ourselves without leeching every life-giving substance out of the Earth. Personally, I don’t eat fish at all, because of the toxicity of so much of our water. I would rather eat a genetically modified fish as opposed to a contaminated one.