Act Now to Stop Genetically Engineered Fish from Receiving Approval

By Dr. Mercola

On December 21, 2012 — while everyone was busying themselves with preparations for holiday festivities—the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a giant step closer toward the final approval of the first genetically engineered (GE) fish food — a salmon designed to grow abnormally fast.1

It’s a move that many, including myself, have worried might happen, and it now appears the first GE fish could reach your dinner plate within the next year or two, unless a sufficiently strong opposition is mounted.

According to the FDA,2 the GE salmon is “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon,” but many have brought up significant flaws and limitations of the environmental assessment (EA) on which this conclusion is drawn. The FDA’s draft EA3 is now open for public comment.

Genetically Engineered Fish

Story at-a-glance

  • The FDA is getting closer to issuing final approval of the first genetically engineered food animal—a salmon designed to grow up to five times faster than normal. The draft environmental assessment is now open for public comment for 60 days
  • FDA has allowed this GE fish to move forward based on tests of allergenicity of only six engineered fish, and those tests actually did show an increase in allergy-causing potential
  • The environmental risks are also tremendous. In a previous Purdue University computer model that tracked the effects of releasing just 60 “Frankenfish” into a population of 60,000, there was a complete extinction of the normal fish in just 40 fish generations
  • Alaska’s congressional delegation is united in its opposition against the approval of AquaBounty’s GE salmon, and Rep. Don Young has announced a plan to introduce legislation that will, at minimum, require GE salmon to be labeled

What are the Potential Dangers Associated with GE Salmon?

According to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety:4

“The GE salmon has no socially redeeming value. It’s bad for the consumer, bad for the salmon industry and bad for the environment. F.D.A.’s decision is premature and misguided.”

Two years ago, GMO expert Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, called the potential approval of genetically engineered salmon “a move that will go down in history as one of the most asinine and dangerous ever made by our government.” According to Smith, evidence5 suggests the buffed-up salmon might have higher levels of a potentially cancer promoting hormone, IGF-1, more antibiotics, and more of potentially life-threatening allergen(s).

In a recent statement, Michael Hansen PhD, Senior Scientist with Consumers Union said:6

“The Environmental Assessment (EA) states that the FDA has found that the salmon is safe to eat. However, we are deeply concerned that the potential of these fish to cause allergic reactions has not been adequately researched. FDA has allowed this fish to move forward based on tests of allergenicity of only six engineered fish — tests that actually did show an increase in allergy-causing potential.” [Emphasis mine]

But that’s not all. The salmon — which contains a spliced-in growth hormone gene that makes it grow up to five times faster, reaching market size in about 18 months instead of three years — poses a significant threat to the environment and natural fish stocks as well. According to a Purdue University computer model that tracked the effects of releasing just 60 “Frankenfish” into a population of 60,000, there was a complete extinction of the normal fish in just 40 fish generations. It appears the larger size, which attracted mates more easily, combined with a slight reduction in survival rates, was a killer combination. Furthermore, according to Jeffrey Smith, Canadian scientists also engineered their own set of fast growing salmon and tested their behavior in tanks with other fish.

“When there was sufficient food, all was fine. When food stocks decreased, the Frankenfish freaked,” he says. “They became cannibals, attacking and killing other fish — whether GE or natural. Their unexpected behavior resulted in population crashes or complete extinctions in the fish tanks. The study also suggested that if released, these ravenous aggressive salmon would pursue and consume other types of fish.”

The FDA pooh-pooh’s such fears. As reported by the New York Times:7

“The agency [FDA] said the chance this would happen was ‘extremely remote.’ It said the salmon would be raised in inland tanks with multiple barriers to escape. Even if some fish did escape, the nearby bodies of water would be too hot or salty for their survival. And reproduction would be unlikely because the fish would be sterilized, though the sterilization technique is not foolproof.”

The issue of the sterility of the fish is a can of worms in and of itself. According to Hansen:

“…We are also concerned that FDA puts great weight, in their finding of ‘no significant impact,’ on the fact that the engineered salmon would be sterile females. However FDA indicates that only 95 percent of the salmon may be sterile, and the rest fertile. When you are talking about millions of fish, even one percent comes to thousands of fish. Moreover, perhaps even more important, the fish at the egg production facility in Prince Edward Island, Canada would obviously not be sterile — otherwise they could not produce eggs…”

And what about the promise that these GE salmon will be firmly landlocked, with no possibility of escape? This may sound good and well to some people, but it’s important to remember how the process typically ends up working — “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile,” as the saying goes. George Leonard, writing for the National Geographic recently addressed this with the following statement:8

“While this initial application to grow GE salmon is for land-based facilities, the prospect of even larger profits from growing GE salmon in the ocean will certainly create pressure for approval in these more environmentally risky systems in the future.

The U.S. is poorly equipped to deal with this future scenario. In June 2011, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco released a National Aquaculture Policy to guide how marine aquaculture proceeds in our ocean waters. While the policy includes some strong environmental provisions, it does not categorically prohibit the growing of GE fish in the ocean. It should.

Given FDA’s action yesterday and NOAA’s failure to prohibit GE fish in its aquaculture policy, the time has come for Congress to intervene. Congress should work to pass Senator Mark Begich’s PEGASUS Act or similar legislation that requires FDA to take the environmental risks seriously before approving GE fish. If Congress doesn’t act soon, the nation’s ocean may suffer from FDA’s efforts to chart a course for GE salmon.”

Environmental Assessment ‘Woefully Inadequate,’ Scientist Says

The video above is two years old, but the arguments made in it remain unchanged. The video features Michael Hanson, a brilliant senior scientist with the Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumers Reports), and Val Giddings, a biotechnology consultant to various governments and companies. One major concern is that the containment systems designed to segregate these fish from wild fish could fail. I am convinced this is the MAJOR argument against the approval of these GE fish, not the allergencity of them. As explained by Hanson, the fact that the FDA is only looking at two facilities, both outside the United States, and that they’ve only performed an environmental assessment on ONE facility, specifically located on Prince Edward Island (PEI), is of major concern. There’s no assessment of the environmental impact if the fish are produced elsewhere.

In his 2010 comments to the FDA Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee Meeting, he stated:9

“A fundamental problem with all the phenotypic characterization data, and indeed all the nutritional and food safety assessment data, is that they all come from GE Salmon raised in the PEI facility, not at the facility in Panama. FDA admits that the culture/husbandry conditions at the facility in Panama will likely differ significantly from the conditions at the PEI facility with unknown effect on the GE salmon’s phenotype but then concludes that it has no concerns with the different culture conditions: ‘the culture (e.g., water temperature, pH, alkalinity, etc.) were likely to be significantly different from the facility at PEI as a result of differences in, among others, water surface, facility design, and environmental factors due to geographic location. …the effect of the difference between the PEI and Panama facilities, especially temperature, on the resulting AquAdvantage phenotype is unknown.

Conclusion: The husbandry and rearing conditions at the PEI and Panama facilities do no present concerns with respect to animal health.’

We do not understand how FDA can conclude, in the absence of any data on the phenotype of GE salmon raised at the Panama facility, that there are no animal health concerns with GE salmon raised at the Panama facility. This lack of data is highly problematic as the GE salmon that consumers will be exposed to will be those grown at the Panama facility. FDA appears willing to conclude that there are no animal or human safety problems from AquAdvantage salmon raised in Panama based on no data at all…”

Furthermore, another major concern that environmental activists have is that if the fish accidentally get out into the wild, they’re more aggressive; they feed more, and can easily outcompete not only other salmon but any local fish. As mentioned earlier, Canadian researchers showed this to be the case — when food supply was scarce, the GE salmon turned cannibalistic, resulting in complete extinctions within the fish tanks…

The approval of these salmon is just the beginning, and for that very reason, we should insist on caution and the strictest, most detailed scientific inquiry possible, and this is simply NOT the case here… As Giddings says, if these fish are approved, “it will demonstrate that there’s a functional regulatory system that is able to look at the data and make a reasoned, science-based decision based on the data,” and this would naturally open the door to the introduction of other genetically engineered animal-based foods. According to Hanson, the scientific bar should be set very high when it comes to evaluating the health- and environmental impact of GE animals, but the FDA is “setting it about an inch off the floor.”

Breakdown of the Federal Government’s Science Integrity Process

Forbes magazine10 recently ran an article questioning whether the federal government’s science integrity process has completely broken down as the White House administration stands accused of openly meddling with the approval of the controversial Frankenfish.

Two years ago, the FDA promised to release the environmental assessment of AquaBounty’s modified salmon “within weeks.” But it didn’t… A draft assessment was eventually produced, dated April 19, 2012, but it ended up not being released. Why? According to Forbes, the draft was blocked on orders from the White House, and subsequently delayed seven months — presumably to protect President Obama’s reelection efforts.

“Genetically modified plants and animals are controversial among the president’s political base, which was thought critical to his reelection efforts during a low point in the president’s popularity,” Forbes writes.11

“…According to sources, the White House political block — a direct violation of numerous ethics regulations and possibly of federal laws — was instituted over the objections of scientists at the FDA, but with the awareness of HHS Secretary Sibelius, her senior adviser Andrea Palm and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and its director John Holdren, who is responsible for enforcing ‘science integrity’ across government agencies. The OSTP had overseen an inter-agency review process that was completed by early spring. According to sources, Holdren stood by as the White House openly meddled.

The revelations have come as an embarrassment to the administration, say sources. As president, Barack Obama had pledged to change ‘the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology.’ To publicly guarantee that, the White House had issued a science integrity memorandum in 2009 pledging, ‘Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions,’ and putting Holdren in charge of enforcement.

FDA scientists and staffers say they were instructed not to discuss the decision to approve the salmon — a violation of the agency’s scientific integrity guidelines adopted last February that require the FDA to shield its staff from ‘political influence’ and to allow officials and scientists to ‘communicate their personal scientific or policy views to the public, even when those views differ from official Agency opinions.'”

Will Congress Protect You From this Potentially Hazardous Food?

Fortunately, some congressional members are not sitting idly by, waiting for the devastation to take place. Alaska’s congressional delegation is united in its opposition against the approval of AquaBounty’s GE salmon,12 Senator Mark Begich calls the notion that GE salmon is safe for human consumption and our oceans “a joke,” and Senator Lisa Murkowski has stated:

“I am concerned with the recent news that FDA is moving forward with the approval of genetically modified fish. This is especially troubling as the agency is ignoring the opposition by salmon and fishing groups, as well as more than 300 environmental, consumer and health organizations.”

Of course, another major area of concern is, if the salmon is approved, whether you will be able to know when you’re buying it, since GE foods are still not required to be labeled. Consumer advocates are concerned about how large the no-labeling problem will grow, since genetically engineered beef, pork and other fish are next in line behind salmon for FDA consideration. For example, Science Nordic13 has announced its intentions to create a salmon with higher omega-3 content than regular salmon. In response to these growing concerns, Rep. Don Young recently announced a plan to introduce legislation that will, at minimum, require GE salmon to be labelled.14

Action Items to Stop Approval of GE Salmon

Without labeling, there’s no way for you to tell how the food you eat was grown, and while this is bad enough as it relates to GE corn, soy, sugar, and other common food ingredients, it’s an issue that will become increasingly important with the introduction of animal foods where the entire animal itself has been genetically altered.

I believe the old adage that “you are what you eat” is rooted in basic truth, and I for one do not think there’s any possible way to achieve the same health benefits from a genetically altered food source as from “the real deal” produced by nature. These are remarkable times, but it’s become quite clear that we must vigorously protect and defend natural foods of all kinds. We cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand and hope for the best on this issue.

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