Tampering with our Future

Genetically engineered fish, the FDA and labeling GE/GMO foods

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The thought of experimenting with animals to create new life forms that can be patented, produced in commercial feedlots, and marketed without labeling makes most people very uneasy. Genetic engineering is not, as many supporters claim, simply a more efficient form of traditional plant and animal breeding. Biotech promoters envision a profitable future achieved through combining DNA from bacteria, viruses, animals, plants, even humans, with other unrelated species.

Consumers need to be aware that U.S. food policies are undergoing huge changes and if they have concerns, they need to contact their legislators, members of Congress and the Food and Drug Administration. The potential for negative impacts on human health, the environment, traditional food producers and businesses make transparency, safeguards and regulations very important.

The FDA is close to approving a genetically engineered animal that could never occur naturally yet may end up on America’s dinner plates—genetically engineered salmon! It has been created by a transnational corporation, AquaBounty, by inserting a growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook and a promoter gene from an eel-like fish Ocean Pout into Atlantic salmon. The corporate publicity says their AquAdvantage® salmon will produce growth hormones year-round and reach marketable size in half the time, although other studies do not show increased rates of growth.

There are serious flaws with the approval process, beginning with the FDA decision to regulate genetically engineered animals as veterinary drugs, not food for human consumption. The FDA did not conduct independent safety studies and instead is relying on data from the company itself. Most FDA employees overseeing GE experimentations are veterinarians. While knowledgeable about large animals, they have been criticized for excluding experts in health and environmental risks in the evaluation process. This secrecy is “contrary to law, science and common sense” said George Kimbrell, Senior Attorney for the Center for Food Safety, and “public health and transparency should be championed, not skirted, particularly when contemplating such an unprecedented approval.” 

Many unanswered questions remain about the risks of introducing “novel” animals into our food supply that are created by combining DNA of other species. Chronic diseases such as impaired immune responses, asthma, allergies and inflammation are on the rise. Reports of food allergies increased by 18 percent among children under 18 in the decade from 1997-2007. Common signs of allergic reactions may be on a person’s skin, such as eczema, hives or swelling, or digestive problems such as vomiting or diarrhea, or respiratory symptoms such as difficulty breathing and even loss of consciousness. In 2010 an estimated one in 12 Americans had asthma, accounting for one-quarter of all emergency room visits and the most common cause of school absenteeism in the United States.

Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, called the FDA’s research “woefully incomplete” when disputing the agency claim that transgenic salmon are safe. “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.”

AquAdvantage® salmon may also contain the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), linked to prostate, breast and colon cancers. The fish contain lower levels of nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids―the ‘good’ fat which has important health benefits.

The medical profession is reacting with alarm. The Precautionary Principle of Environmental Health Nursing invokes a proactive approach to disease prevention, stating: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

More than 400 health organizations, nationally and in Washington State, have endorsed mandatory GMO labeling, including the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, the Washington State Nursing Association and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. The United Nations/World Health Organization food standards and the American Medical Association have called for mandatory safety testing of genetically engineered foods. The FDA continues to fail to meet their standards.

40 members of the U.S. Congress also questioned the lack of safeguards and urged the FDA to address serious flaws in its approval process and incorporate more public input and scientific data. In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, they argued that GE fish would put wild fish in jeopardy and “recklessly and needlessly endanger human health.”

Along with human health concerns, there are significant environmental risks, including pollution of the gene pool of wild and domestic animals with commercial production of biotech fish and livestock. In AquaBounty’s initial application to the FDA states, they plan to use fertile salmon to produce eggs on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, then ship the eggs to growout tanks in Panama. The company states they can achieve sterility, yet their own data shows sterilization techniques are not effective in up to 5 percent of all eggs treated. AquaBounty claims to have orders for 15 million GE salmon, so it’s conceivable that upward of 750,000 genetically engineered salmon would be fertile. The company also states that they wish to produce salmon closer to population and transportation centers. This is very troublesome since the salmon farming industry worldwide has proven incapable of confining fish, pollution, parasites or pathogens.

For investors to achieve their financial goals, GE fish will be reared in public waters since nature provides free sewage disposal service. The company kept from independent evaluation salmon that suffered from skeletal deformities, increased inflammation and lesions. Their inherent weakness and susceptibility to diseases would require greater usage of antibiotics. The salmon farming industry already uses more antibiotics per weight than any other animal production.

Use of open cages replicates some of the worst practices of factory farming on land in the marine environment, and control over future production is impossible.

The expansion of offshore industrial aquaculture, promoted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would allow fish farms as close as three miles to our nation’s shorelines. NOAA also promotes expanded production in Washington waters of more salmon and steelhead, blackcod, shellfish and other (sometimes non-native) species. Open ocean aquaculture in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is listed in NOAA’s “Washington Aquaculture Opportunities for Growth.” Plans are being promoted to allow private production of 10 million pounds of fish in open cages west of Port Angeles and various aquaculture companies are seeking to “streamline” Washington’s regulatory process.

The open cages used by Washington’s salmon farmers confine neither pollution nor fish. In four years, more than 613,000 nonnative Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound waters. Millions of pounds of fish waste annually flush from salmon farms and Viral hemorrhagic septicemia infected Washington’s penned salmon several winters ago, putting wild fish and other sealife at risk.

Species that can be reared in captivity for their entire life cycle require feeding. In the past few years, companies receiving huge agricultural subsidies have come to the west coast to promote using their genetically modified crops and grains for fish feed. The tactics of one company, Monsanto, may be the future we can expect if/when genetically engineered fish are reared in U.S. waters. Monsanto has aggressively filed lawsuits against farmers the company claims have violated patent agreements when GE seeds drift onto private, often organic fields. By the end of 2012, Center for Food Safety calculates that Monsanto had received more than $23.5 million from patent infringement lawsuits against farmers and farm businesses. Although Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2002 banned rearing of GE fish in our waters, the composition of the commission has changed and the ban could be lifted. Would fishing folks in our region be sued for theft if they caught an escaped GE fish or its progeny?

Like the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, combining genes from humans, plants, bugs, bacteria, fish, animals and other unrelated species may have irreversible consequences. Since GE life forms cannot be recalled, if undesirable mutations result, the cheerleaders for the industry bear responsibility for unleashing untested, potentially dangerous technology upon the world.

The experimentations on genomes can be viewed as similar to what occasionally happens to ecosystems with invasive species. Introducing of a piece of DNA would not always cause disruption to the host, but some ecosystem introductions are catastrophic and irreversible, such as the Northern snakehead, brown snake, mongoose, cane toads, Kudzu, and Asian carp. According to the Washington Invasive Species Council, a wide range of invasives in our state place native species at risk, from knapweeds, to zebra mussels, green and mitten crabs. And not just Atlantic salmon are listed as invasive, but the viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus that infected the fish several winters ago is also listed.

The biotech industry is closely watching the FDA process. If GE salmon is approved with what is widely considered inadequate, even shoddy oversight and low standards for assessing health and environmental risks, applications will follow for dozens of other “frankenfish,” including trout, catfish, tilapia, striped bass and flounder. A GE pig (dubbed “frankenswine”) may have been removed from the lineup, but goats with genes of spiders and other altered animals remain. Proponents of this technology boast that the sky’s the limit and anything imagined could be created.

For many reasons, the approval process for GE animals must proceed extremely cautiously and correctly. Dr. Anne Kapuscinski, professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth College, recently led a team of 53 scientists who wrote the book on risk assessment science as applied to genetically modified fish. She stated, “If FDA does approve these fish, the final environmental assessment is going to set the precedent for future approvals. So it absolutely has to have the best scientific reliability and quality, especially given that future applications may not be shared with the public.” 

The impacts of GE salmon production would also affect coastal economies. Wild fish populations have plummeted due to dams, diverted rivers, historic overfishing and development to the water’s edge. While consumers who value wild fish have allowed communities as far away as Bristol Bay to resist pressure to sell out to dirty industries with attractive short-term business plans and hidden long-term environmental impacts, that could change if markets are flooded with faster-growing farmed GE fish. The costs of production are heavily subsidized by nature. Many believe that too often policy making agencies are working too closely with industries they should be regulating

Labeling the problem

The FDA has rejected labeling under the controversial argument that GE foods are “substantially equivalent” to their non-genetically engineered counterparts. Michael Taylor is the architect of the FDA’s policy of no safety testing and no labeling of GMOs. He has bounced between the FDA and Monsanto, where he was V.P. for public policy. In January 2010, President Obama appointed Taylor to a newly created post at the FDA: Deputy Commissioner for Foods. The FDA is taking comments on GE salmon until April 26.

When the FDA made their original announcement that they were considering approving GE salmon in 2010, more than 400,000 public comments and joint letters from over 300 environmental, consumer, health, and fishing and other organizations demanded the agency reject this GE salmon application and require mandatory labeling if it should it decide to approve it. The FDA needs to hear from consumers who care about what they eat and what they feed their loved ones. Without accurate labeling, consumers won’t be able to avoid frankenfish or any other genetically engineered fish or animal when it shows up on a Styrofoam tray at the grocery store.

More than 350,000 Washington voters last fall enthusiastically supported Initiative 522 to label foods containing genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). Our legislature has three options - they can pass the initiative now, amend it or take no action. Recent hearings have been held in both the Senate and the House but despite the clear will of the public, our elected officials have not yet taken action. If they fail to enact I-522, it will go on November’s ballot, allowing for months of deceptive advertising on costs and criticisms of the initiative.

Some members of Whatcom’s County and Bellingham’s City Council are considering endorsing I-522, and we could lead the state with resolutions requiring labeling. Let your council member know your support.

The world is very attentive to what actions will be taken by Washington’s elected officials and residents on labeling of GE foods/fish. Almost one million people have signed an online petition from Avaaz, a global civic action organization against GM salmon and many other petitions are circulating about whether we will join 63 other nations, including all European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, Russia, Brazil and South Africa in labeling GE foods. Several countries outright ban production and distribution of genetically engineered crops and animals.

Recent polls found that 91 percent of Americans believe the FDA should not introduce GE fish and meat into the market place and 95 percent of respondents said that food from GE animals should be labeled. California was close to approving a labeling initiative last fall until more than $45 million dollars came into the state from Monsanto, Dow, Kraft Foods, ConAgra and other huge agribusinesses and chemical manufacturers. These companies do label GE ingredients when marketing around the world. We will likely face the same influx of money in our state, to deny consumers’ their right to make informed choices, if our legislature does not act on a labeling initiative that is before them now.

Labeling GE foods does  not increase costs to producers and harvesters, and instead provides economic benefit to commercial fisheries, traditional crop, fruit and grain growers. Consumers were able to differentiate wild salmon from farmed when Washington’s legislature in 1993 unanimously passed a bill required labeling of different species of salmon, whether wild or farmed, and country of origin. Other required labels on farmed salmon include the words “Color added” or “Contains artificial colorants”. The FDA did not implement its own labeling requirement until a national class action lawsuit was filed in 2003.

Federal legislation has been introduced that would ban production, sales or shipping of genetically engineered salmon in the US, and more Congressional sponsors are needed. A letter recently sent to the FDA from seven senators called genetically-engineered salmon a “controversial and unsustainable seafood product” that could potentially escape into U.S. waters. They promise to introduce legislation calling for a more comprehensive environmental review and “labeling of any such products sold in the U.S. so consumers are aware of what is on their dinner plates.”

Washington’s senators Murray and Cantwell joined Alaska Senators Begich and Murkowski, Wyden and Merkley of Oregon, and Mikulski of Maryland. Begich had previously introduced the Prevention of Escapement of Genetically Altered Salmon in the Unites States (PEGASUS) Act to ban the interstate commerce of genetically modified fish. PEGASUS would make it unlawful to ship, transport, offer for sale, sell, or purchase genetically altered salmon or other marine fish, or a product containing genetically altered salmon or other marine fish, in interstate or foreign commerce, or to have the same in custody, control or possession of for those purposes. Ak representative Don Young is sponsoring legislation that also require labeling of genetically engineered fish. Alaska’s legislature has passed legislation opposing AquaBounty’s GE salmon and requiring labeling if approved.

Whole Foods Market just announced that they will require labeling of all genetically engineered foods sold in its 339 stores in the United States and Canada, a move that some experts said could radically alter the food industry. Other grocery stores, seafood restaurants, chefs and seafood companies are being asked to demonstrate their commitment to sustainably produced seafood and consumer choice by signing a Pledge for GE-Free Seafood.

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization based in Bellingham that educates consumers so they can make informed food choices. It offers North America’s only third party verification and work with “food manufacturers, distributors, growers, and seed suppliers to develop a standard for detection of GMOs and for the reduction of contamination risk of the non-GMO food supply with GMOs.”

Loss of wild fish and declining health of coastal ecosystems is putting our future food security in jeopardy which cannot be remedied by more feedlots and factory farms. GE crops, biotech fish and livestock are not the solutions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that the loss of biodiversity will have “major impact on the ability of humankind to feed itself in the future.” NOAA’s latest figures show Washington is fourth in the nation with jobs supported by the seafood industry, with more than 67,000. The strength of our region depends on protecting and restoring our coastal marine biodiversity, wild fish based cultures and economies.

More info at:

Anne Mosness is a long-time commercial fisherwoman, a Food and Society Policy Fellow, and serves on the Yes on I-522 advisory committee. She lives in Bellingham.

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