Colin Czerwinski | Unsplash
Do you remember Frankenfood? No, that’s not the name of a long-forgotten, sugary children’s cereal. It’s the nickname that critics give to GMO foods like corn, soy, canola, and cotton. And there are many.
Through changes at the genetic level, GMO technology makes seeds resistant to high doses of herbicides. In some cases, seeds are modified to produce pesticides themselves, as in the case of Bt maize and cotton, where the seed expresses a toxin to kill pests.
However, the technology has made other iterations as well, including genetically engineered salmon, which was developed (back in 1989) to reach market weight in a fraction of the time as non-genetically modified salmon. The fish, AquAdvantage Salmon from AquaBounty, has been in regulatory limbo since 2015. A new federal court ruling passed earlier this month says it isn’t ready for the U.S. market just yet.
According to the court, the FDA will have to re-examine AquaBounty’s GMO salmon due to the risks of fish escaping from their enclosures. The judge said the agency didn’t fully consider these risks before granting its approval. If approved, the salmon would be hatched in Canada and reared in stables in Indiana, with other farm facilities already underway in Kentucky.
The judge’s decision requires the FDA “to finally grapple with what scientists both inside and outside of government have been saying for a very long time,” said Stephen Mashuda, attorney for Earthjustice, the conservation and fishing industry groups that represent The FDA is suing that genetically modified salmon poses unacceptable risks. ”
Charles Deluvio | Unsplash
Those who criticize GMO foods mainly deal with two core issues. First, there is the increased pesticide and herbicide load that is sprayed on crops like corn and soy. Many of these chemicals have been linked to serious human health problems, including an increased risk of cancer. That connection led to the first court ruling of its kind in 2018, when California groundsman Dewayne Johnson received more than $ 280 million in a lawsuit alleging Monsanto’s Roundup glyphosate-based weed killer was the source of its deadly non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. (Johnson later accepted a reduced award of $ 78 million.)
The second problem, however, is the technology itself. What exactly happens to a seed – or a fish – when genes are changed? Does this change affect other profiles such as nutrient density or allergen risk? Could it even increase the risk of expressing latent toxins? The industry did not fully answer these questions. And according to the FDA, biotechnologically produced foods (the new regulatory term for GMOs) are functionally identical to non-genetically modified foods.
But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. The risks became apparent, at least in part, as early as 2000 when a batch of GMO corn called StarLink, approved for farm animals only, entered the food system. Several dozen people who consumed corn reported adverse allergic reactions, which forced an FDA investigation into seven of those cases. There were concerns about Cry9C, a potential medium risk human allergen in corn, but the results were inconclusive.
When it comes to genetically modified animals, there are potentially more devastating consequences for the environment and, in this case, for endangered fish.
AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage Salmon is a genetic hybrid between a pout and a Pacific Chinook. The FDA granted the fish permit five years ago, but has faced legal hurdles ever since.
The fish has been approved as a “drug” under the FDA’s Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. The same judge who first approved the FDA to approve the fish dismissed the agency’s position earlier this month.
According to court records, the FDA argued that it was under no obligation to consider the environmental impact of GMO animals. The agency said its only responsibility is to make sure that a drug, even if it is actually a fish, is “safe to use”.
US District Judge Vince Chhabria disagreed.
“Even if the FDA is correct that environmental issues that were capitalized were not relevant to their decision, the agency must always consider the subset of environmental impacts that directly affect animal or human health,” the judge wrote.
The FDA argues that it placed restrictions on AquaBounty in 2015 when it first approved the fish. It is said that the hatcheries would be very difficult for the fish to escape.
Despite these prevention considerations, the agency ignored the “what if” question: what if any number of these modified fish ended up in open water? What if they mate with non-GM fish?
“While this scenario was unlikely, the FDA had to assess the consequences,” wrote Chhabria.
Now the agency needs to review the risk factors and potential of “genetic pollution” – breeding with non-genetically modified fish. The agency must also assess the potential threats to the endangered Atlantic salmon population in the Gulf of Maine. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, it is estimated that only 1,200 are left in the wild. Mating with GMO fish could further affect the species.
The judge has not completely revoked the approval of the AquAdvantage salmon.
“Revoking approval would likely require the destruction of the current salmon population, which would mean a significant loss of property and animal life that would be wasteful given the real possibility that the FDA will be able to cure the salmon [National Environmental Policy Act] and [Endangered Species Act] Mistakes in custody, ”wrote Chhabria.
In a statement, AquaBounty CEO and President Sylvia Wulf said the company is pushing ahead despite disappointment with the judge’s decision.
“This decision will not affect our ongoing egg production operations in Prince Edward Island, Canada, or the rearing and sales of AquAdvantage salmon from our Indiana farm,” said Wulf. “We are determined to work with the FDA on the next steps and further evaluate the legal decision.”
AquAdvantage grows faster than non-genetically modified fish AquaBounty
Assessment of the risks
The question now remains as to whether or not GMO fish can be integrated into the wild and what effects they could exactly have. For Sarah Jane Alger, who wrote in Nature in 2015, the fact that accelerated growth rates – the main effect of genetic modification – did not develop naturally in wild salmon “suggests that they would be detrimental in a natural setting”.
“For one thing, fish with excess growth hormone sometimes have abnormal skull shapes or organ sizes that can reduce their competitiveness and survival in harsh natural conditions,” continues Alger.
But she also notes that the excess growth hormone in fish means a higher metabolism and thus a starved appetite.
“Their high urge to feed means that if they escape, they could possibly outperform local fish for food.”
Alger also pointed out, however, that their urge to feed could lead them to their own demise: “Their urge to feed is often so high that they spend more time on the water surface, which exposes them to more predators that they may remove from their natural environment sooner . In fact, research suggests that many GMO fish with excess growth hormone only grow faster in tightly controlled tanks with lots of feed. When food is not abundant and predators are present, some GMO fish actually grow slower than their wild counterparts. “
There’s still a lot we don’t know about this salmon and that’s a problem in and of itself, according to critics. Fish is already a common allergen like corn and soy. And as with the StarLink corn question, it is not yet known what kind of human health risk GMO salmon could pose to susceptible individuals.
According to GM Watch, AquaBounty “botched” its allergic reaction test and did not need to retest. “They did another test that was really small, with only six fertile fish and six normal fish,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in 2017, in an interview at the time that technical fish were so likely to cause allergic reactions Reactions to the FDA saying, “We’re not going to let you sell fertile fish.”
Critics of the fish also question whether the GMO fish might be more susceptible to parasites, which puts those who eat the fish at risk as well.
And there is also the issue of transparency to be considered. After all, under the current approval language, markets and restaurants would not have to take into account that the salmon is genetically modified. Although a number of supermarkets have committed to voluntarily labeling the fish, it is likely that it still appears in stores and on menus with no clear labeling.
Despite all of these risks, AquAdvantage could be in the food supply as soon as next year if AquaBounty and the FDA can meet legal requirements.
Based on bio-authority
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