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GMO Salmon Debate

September 22, 2010 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

This past week several readers inquired about my opinion on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s pending approval of a genetically modified salmon known as AquAdvantage. I’ve decided to share my perspective in the context of a column so that you might all understand my position on this controversial topic. My hope is that it helps you to decide whether GMO salmon is right for you and your families.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will almost certainly play a greater role in the future of the world’s food supply. For better or worse, this is an inevitable fact. If they can be supplied in a manner that is safe for the environment and its inhabitants, this is almost certainly a positive scientific development. Among other benefits, GMOs have the potential to address food shortages and preserve dwindling wildlife populations the world over. However, that’s a big “if”. Many pressing questions remain to be answered.

The “product” that the US FDA is currently evaluating was created by combining a gene from the largest salmon (Chinook salmon) and splicing it with the DNA of Atlantic salmon. The result is a variety of salmon that produces growth hormone under a broader range of conditions and, thereby, hastens its rate of growth considerably while reducing feed requirements. (1,2,3)

There are several issues at the crux of the controversy surrounding the approval process. For starters, there’s the source of information the FDA is using upon which to base it’s decision. In this case, the majority of the research has been carried out and/or funded by the developer of this GMO salmon, Aqua Bounty Technologies, Inc. This obviously leaves much to be desired. Please understand that I’m not a big-business hater or conspiracy theorist. I simply subscribe to the scientific principle of independent and unbiased testing of claims. (4)

Another disconcerting detail is that there are no “whole-food feeding studies” (in animals) or human studies involving AquAdvantage salmon currently published in the medical literature. The only research that’s been peer-reviewed and published involves biological and nutritional differences between GMO salmon vs. non-GMO salmon samples. Questions pertaining to allergenicity and the health effects of AquAdvantage in living organisms have yet to be conducted and/or published. The reason appears to be the position of Aqua Bounty and the US FDA that this GMO salmon is essentially the same as farmed and wild salmon, and so requires no additional proof of safety. The irony here is that salmon, themselves, have undergone testing to determine whether feeding them GMO food is harmful to their health. (5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12)

The dispute between those who are in favor of approval and those against continues with respect to a potential environmental threat. What would happen if this newly created salmon made its way into the wild and procreated with non-GMO fish? Once again, Aqua Bounty and the FDA have an answer on hand. The GMO salmon will be farmed in “physically contained systems” apart from wild populations of fish. What they’re referring to are essentially large pens/pools housed in enclosed, land-based locations such as warehouses. A secondary precaution they’re taking is to only produce genetically modified female eggs that are sterile. This sounds like a reasonable safe guard. However, not all environmental experts are entirely sold on this safety strategy. Dr. Brian Ellis, a biotechnologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver notes that, “This is a self-replicating animal whose life cycle is still not very well understood, and most of it takes place far beyond human intervention out in the ocean”. He adds that, “We’re looking here at a scenario where the fish might wind up sooner or later in the ocean. I think if we go down this route, we have to be prepared to accept some potentially unknown consequences.”(13,14,15,16,17)

GMO Corn May Cause Kidney and Liver Damage in Rats
Source: Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-726 (link)

A final issue worth considering is the manner by which GMO salmon will be introduced into the consumer marketplace. Aqua Bounty doesn’t believe that their product should labeled clearly so that the public can decide whether they want to buy it or not. According to the company, “Food labeling is intended to provide information on product composition and safety. Because salmon grown from AquAdvantage® eggs are nutritionally and biologically the same as any other Atlantic salmon the consumer purchases, there is no reason for it to be labeled as different. Voluntary labeling is sometimes acceptable, but would be the responsibility of the fish growers.” Will the FDA stand for this or require some sort of labeling? That remains to be seen. (18)

Whenever I consult with a client or offer an opinion on this site, I make sure to present the same information that I would give to a loved one. Even if AquAdvantage receives the FDA seal-of-approval, I still would not recommend it or use it myself. On numerous occasions, FDA-approved drugs have been recalled years after being approved due to adverse reactions found in post-market drug safety analyses. The same may hold true in the case of some or many GMO products. Until I see reliable, third-party evidence to support the safety of GMO salmon, I’ll consider this to be an experimental product and avoid it. But what I will do is keep a close eye out for allergic reactions and other potential disadvantages and side effects associated with the consumption of AquAdvantage. If they don’t present themselves, I’ll gladly reconsider my position down the line.

Be well!

JP

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22 Comments & Updates to “GMO Salmon Debate”

  1. Timberati Says:

    “What would happen if this newly created salmon made its way into the wild and procreated with non-GMO fish?”

    Most likely? Nothing. The GMO salmon are sterile. For the sake of argument, let’s assume a Jurassic Park hitch and they are not sterile. The passing of specific genes and their being carried along will depend on whether the gene in question is useful in the wild. I would guess that bigger might not be better. Conditions will select for whatever the fish needs. If they cannot adapt they will die out and those that are better adapted remain. Remember, the gene used already comes from another salmon.

  2. JP Says:

    Timberati,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Be well!

    JP

  3. orna izakson Says:

    Another fine, article, JP!

    In response to Timberati’s comment, above: Genetic cross-contamination is not the only environmental issue here. A more immediate concern would be competition with fecund salmon for nutrients, spawning sites and other life-cycle necessities. Outside of Alaska (and the Great Lakes, where some species were released and have taken hold), most wild salmon runs are drastically diminished at best, and at worst threatened, endangered or (IMHO) functionally extinct. The wild runs are already challenged for habitat by the hatchery salmon designed to support them, and arguably genetically challenged by those fish, as well.

    From a health perspective, I wonder if these genetically engineered salmon will be fed any better than those raised in sea pens, or other fish grown in aquaculture facilities. I recommend only pastured (raised and finished) beef for my patients, in large part because of the vastly superior fatty acid profile. People believe salmon are inherently healthy precisely because of their omega-3 fatty acid content; it’s not clear that these new salmon will be.

    I also have concerns about the potential allergenicity JP describes. That’s something we won’t know for quite a while, and something we won’t be able to test on a public-health scale if the genetically engineered fish aren’t labeled.

  4. JP Says:

    Excellent points, Orna. I’m so happy to have your perspective about this matter. Thank you. :)

    Be well!

    JP

  5. Nina K. Says:

    Good morning, JP :-)

    omg!! how scary! we shoudn’t play creator!!!

    Thank you for discussing that here!

    Nina K.

  6. Comeback Geezer Says:

    Genetic modification is probably necessary to feed the masses. I hope that such foods will be labeled and I don’t plan to be an early user.

    I suspect that the ascendancy of man is due to alien genetic modification.

  7. Helena Says:

    I read full of the article and I like it much. Thanx for your sharing. I will check your web page regularly :)

  8. JP Says:

    Thank you, Nina! :)

    Be well!

    JP

  9. JP Says:

    Thank you, Comeback Geezer. ;)

    Ha! The first-part of your statement sounds about right.

    Be well!

    JP

  10. JP Says:

    Thank you, Helena. :)

    Be well!

    JP

  11. liverock Says:

    The problem with existing salmon raised in farms escaping into the wild are not the interbreeding. They decimate the environment of the wild salmon and spread diseases that fish farm salmon are prey to and wild salmon cant handle.

    Fish farms have to use large amounts of chemicals, including PCB’s and antibiotics to alleviate disease caused by large numbers of fish being kept in confined spaces. Farm salmon also have to be fed large amounts of synthetic colorants to get the necassary ‘pink’ flesh of the wild salmon. Farm salmon have only a grey flesh color.

    I would never eat farm salmon more than 2/3 times a year for these reasons.

    http://www.salmonfarmmonitor.org/problems.shtml

  12. JP Says:

    Thank you, Liverock!

    Excellent points, as usual. :)

    Be well!

    JP

  13. Timberati Says:

    JP, thank you for providing a place for civil discussion and disagreement.

    Kevin Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri and a committee member, said he doubted the fish would cause extra allergies. “The salmon contains nothing that isn’t in the human diet,” he said.’ (Source: The NY Times)

    ‘Greg Jaffe, a panel member and a director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said “better analysis is needed,” but he also said the data presented by FDA officials gave him “no reason to believe that this salmon isn’t as safe as other Atlantic salmon.”‘ (Source: Wall Street Journal)

    “When scientists align themselves with anti-science political movements, like Rifkin’s anti-biotechnology crowd, what are we to think? When scientists lend their names and credibility to unscientific propositions, what are we to think? Is it any wonder that science is losing its constituency?” Dr. Norman Borlaug, Feeding a World of 10 Billion People: The Miracle Ahead, May 6, 1997

    Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya puts her protest against the anti-GM groups more tartly, “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?”

    Please feel free to leave reasoned disagreements with me on http://timberati.com

  14. JP Says:

    Timberati,

    Thank you. It really means a lot to me when people take the time to express their perspective here. I consider it a gift and I accept it as such.

    What I’d like to see is more research – provided by independent sources, not by those who will directly benefit from the approval process. This seems like a reasonable position to me. I’m sure it will eventually come. But I think it should come prior to allowing this experiment to be conducted in the public at large. That’s also why I’m opposed to the non-labeling position. At the very least, I think consumers should have a choice in the matter.

    In countries where hunger is a major issue, there’s a stronger case to be made for allowing GMO foods to be used in an experimental manner. Much like an experimental drug can be given to patients with no other options. Still, it should be administered with due consent and precautions in place, IMO.

    Be well!

    JP

  15. orna izakson Says:

    Today’s news: Several US senators want the FDA to stop or slow approval of the GE fish. They argue the approval process is more like the one used for drugs than for food for human consumption. Drugs can keep more information private to protect patents, but people need more science to make informed decisions about the safety of foods they’ll eat. Here’s a link to the Washington Post article.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/28/AR2010092806718.html

  16. JP Says:

    Thank you, Orna!

    An interesting development. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

    Be well!

    JP

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Every time in human history that man tries to mess with nature bad things happen…I can’t help think that this is going to end in disaster…and as usual once we understand the ramifications it will be too late to go back and undo the damage.

  18. Mark Polokoff Says:

    One can debate the potential health effects of GMO salmon. What is not in question is the revolving door that exists between FDA/government and Big Food/Ag companies, especially Monsanto. This raises for me a huge question about potential conflict-of-interest. However, the most important point is that FDA is on record that we are not allowed to even know if the salmon we are eating is GMO or not. This is because they understand that if we know, we will avoid GMO and drive it from the marketplace.

  19. Iggy Dalrymple Says:

    Time to go back to the lowly jack mackerel.

  20. orna izakson Says:

    To further the discussion, here’s an overview article covering research on genetically engineered vegetables and their health effects. I’m not saying it’s the ultimate article on this subject, but it certainly gives interesting information if anyone wants to look deeper.

    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/10/04/watch-out-there-are-more-problems-with-genetically-modified-foods-than-youre-allowed-to-know.aspx

  21. Geraldine Says:

    I have read that this GE salmon contains steelhead genes. Steelhead fish are a distant cousin of Salmon which still grow in cold weather. Salmon have some sort of on/off switch for growth and Steelhead fish are always on to grow. To me Salmon are very unique and precious. They have migratory patterns that is amazing and very precise. Tweaking genes will leave us with a fish that is in no way a real Salmon no matter how so some Biotech agent may claim their is no difference. There ia a world of difference and being human there are mistakes and eggs may not all be female and sterile, and fish may be released into oceans causing this tampered DNA into the wild salmon who will be forever changed. It is not worth the risk to please someones gain and ego. I like Salmon just the way it is and so do all the Alaskan bears who are smarter then the average bear due to all that fine DHA. Farm raised Salmon has much less DHA and I say I want DHA not DNA from mutant creatures.

  22. GSI Says:

    Thanks for discussing this. Great valid points JP

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