This week, the Washington Post reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may allow the sale of genetically modified (GM) salmon to consumers. Already, flaws in the review process surrounding this controversial disruption to the natural food chain are coming into focus.
Unfortunately, the FDA, which has been tasked with overseeing the public's health, could approve the divisive science experiment as early as this fall -- a decision that consumers strongly oppose. If approved, the salmon would represent the first genetically modified animal sold as food to unsuspecting consumers (currently, there are no labeling requirements in place to assist consumers in identifying and avoiding GM foods).
Many in the aquaculture industry seek to genetically engineer fish to speed up production of their product. In this case, the company lobbying the FDA for approval, AquaBounty Technologies, wants to combine salmon genes that control growth hormone with a gene from another fish, the ocean pout. The ocean pout gene would keep the growth hormone in production, effectively creating mutant salmon that grow at twice the normal rate.
Unfortunately, the FDA's tests (historically used to determine if a non-GM food was safe) were created before GM products became a reality and are insufficient in determining the long-term, unforeseen consequences of the GM salmon in question. Put simply, these dated tests cannot determine the salmon's full allergenicity and toxicity.
In addition to the FDA's inability to test for the full range of consumer health threats introduced by GM foods, the agency's tests do not include a review of the GM animals' environmental impacts.
This is unacceptable, as a recent study commissioned by the European Union revealed that genetically modified fish "have a considerably greater effect on the natural environment than hatchery-reared non-transgenic species when they escape."
AquaBounty has claimed that they will raise their fish in land-based facilities where ocean escapes are impossible, but what about the masses of corporations that will no doubt race to produce GM fish in the crowded open ocean facilities they already utilize for fish production? If the FDA approves GM fish, these fish will likely escape from their floating ocean pens (millions of salmon currently escape from them every year). Furthermore, even if a company promises to produce sterile fish incapable of interbreeding with the wild population, fast growing GM fish can easily outcompete wild fish for natural resources.
The Washington Post article points out:
"A Purdue University study using a computer model -- and widely criticized by the biotechnology industry -- showed that if 60 transgenic fish bred in a population of 60,000 wild fish, the wild fish would be extinct in 40 generations."
Ultimately, the documented environmental dangers and potential consumer health dangers of GM salmon prove that the public's distrust of GM products, as reflected in a recent Consumer Reports poll, is not without warrant. The 2008 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about consuming products from GM animals and 95 percent agree that these products should, at the very least, be labeled.
If studies have revealed the dangers of GM foods and the public has verbalized their distaste, why would AquaBounty claim that the FDA is close to approving their product? The reality is that consumers can keep this potentially hazardous food off of their dinner plates by contacting the FDA and demanding they perform up-to-date, comprehensive reviews of any new GM product, starting with AquaBounty.