Food

Do We Really Want GMO Salmon Swimming Into the Food Chain?

What's the history behind the approval of genetically engineered salmon?

Photo Credit: © g215/Shutterstock.com

The recent approval of genetically engineered salmon for human consumption by the FDA brought back my memories of the Golden Rice controversy. It also raises a question, amid the conflicts of our world: who gets fed?

Golden Rice was initially developed by a research team led by two scientists, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Germany’s University of Freiburg, respectively. Their new GE rice variety, deep yellow with beta-carotene, an essential vitamin A precursor, represented a significant advance in bioengineering when introduced to the world in 2000. The genes necessary for the complete synthesis of a required human nutrient had been inserted into the rice genome, so that this nutrient was newly available in the edible part of the rice, the endosperm. Golden Rice was intended to improve human nutrition on a global scale by enhancing a widely used staple crop of subsistence with the vitamin A precursor necessary to prevent childhood blindness, one of many nutritional deficiencies still affecting people on our planet. (WHO publishes a Vitamin A deficiency map and there are plenty of hunger statistics.)

In April 2015, Potrykus and Beyer received the Patents for Humanity Award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. They had released their intellectual property rights in Golden Rice for the common good, without profit. Their groundbreaking, bioengineered design of an enhanced staple food used around the world was genuinely humanitarian.

However, from its introduction and to this day, there has been a rejection of Golden Rice at the populace level, a social and cultural pushback: many people of rice-based cultures in Asia do not want to eat yellow-colored, foreign rice. White is an ancient, traditional rice color that historically carries religious significance. For thousands of years rice has fed the many and is culturally powerful, an inborn meme. In 2013, the destruction of a plot at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) field trial of Golden Rice in the Philippines, by a group of anti-GMO activists, made headline news. The field ruin was hotly criticized, with many contentions that the anti-GMO side just does not understand the science. 

True, not every member of the general public understands and knows how to interpret GMO data. Yet people in the Philippines also share the belief that one must never destroy a green (growing) rice plant. Some reporters made the point that many native farmers held back from the rice field “massacre” and were horrified at the sight. But the farmers’ response to the massacre was not because Golden Rice in an IRRI field was being destroyed; it was because rice plants were being decimated, the symbol of life itself. There was cultural horror in the crowd.   

Rice is sometimes the only food there is to eat for the millions who live in poverty on our planet, the people for whom Golden Rice was developed. A conflict of choices remains.

For now, I am anti-GMO, even though all food, when properly digested, is reduced into its components. Proteins become amino acids, long chain carbohydrates become short chain sugars, and precursors like beta-carotene are processed in the human gut to become vitamin A, no matter what the source. I can see why scientists in academia, government and industry may state that GMOs are safe for human consumption. What harm could possibly come from eating a GMO, when everything we consume is digested? We eat DNA every day, from every once living organism in our diets, from rice to caviar. 

The introduction of food allergens is one example of a potential problem with GMO consumption. Soybeans that have been genetically engineered to contain Brazil nut proteins do trigger allergic reactions in people with Brazil nut allergies, which is a good reason for labeling GE foods. Do we know what other proteins made from lab-engineered genes may cause allergenic problems, now or in the future? How stable are the genes of GMOs, and what are their mutation rates, if any? What happens when they get into the wild and cross-breed? Are these possibilities long shots, only remotely possible?

There are a number of other pressing issues around the industrial production of GMOs, yet my intent is not to review all of them, and I direct readers here for more information. One issue I do wish to hone is the potential for gene flow, from engineered to wild, a literal genetic contamination of the wild genomes of the species from which GMOs are derived, if mating occurs of any kind between them.  Farm-raised Atlantic GMO salmon continue to escape into the ocean, and upstream into reproductive proximity of their native, original species. Such gene flow is a form of pollution and must not be allowed. That is because gene pollution will alter our remaining wild diversity, and we cannot afford to lose any more.

Wild biodiversity cannot be created in a lab. Furthermore, there is not survival without it. Ireland’s potato famine is a prime example of the demise of an organism that occurred due to genetic paucity; insufficient gene diversity to code for any effective plant biochemical or other defense of the field pathogen. Potato blight killed one million people through starvation and disease and displaced another million more, all because just one or two potato plants were used to propagate the whole of Ireland’s crop. That “founder effect,” the propagation of many from a genetically limited few, put all of the potato plants into a survival bottleneck, a limited gene pool.

There are now only three white rhinos left in the world—this is genetic paucity. Genetic paucity easily leads to extinction.

On planet Earth, in our current era, there is no longer any other way of conserving biodiversity in all of its forms, genetic, organismal, species, wild population, and especially human and cultural, without first conserving the diversity and ecology of all habitats and inhabitants still alive. This means we must stop the loss of wild diversity in nature, in all of its forms, and prevent further environmental contamination of any kind, not just chemical, but also genetic. Is this stance idealistic and untenable?

I believe that for all of what we do as individuals, we who live with comfort among the nations, there must now be global thinking in our decisions; we must remember our inextricable connections to other life on this planet as we make our way in our individual lives. Kofi Anan recently tweeted: “We are rapidly approaching the tipping point beyond which climate change may become irreversible."

Climate is an integral sustainer of biodiversity. We are at a tipping point. We can’t afford to fail, for we cannot survive without our planet’s climate, or without its biodiversity. 

There are new voices rising from the general public against GE salmon. Reviewing some of the scientific rebuttal to prior anti-GMO free speech, I have to wonder why so many critics assume anti-GMO scientists are not looking at the data, the statistics, and asking good questions. 

The new GE salmon is a “triploid.” Triploid often means an organism has three full sets of chromosomes, instead of the normal two sets, which is termed “diploid.” Humans are diploid, with 46 total chromosomes, having two complementary sets of 23 chromosomes each.  Triploid for humans would mean 69 chromosomes total, a genetic disaster. “Polyploidy,” this trait of multiplied sets of chromosomes, is rarely found in animals, although there are a few known species of beetles in which it occurs. The more widespread rule for animals is that multiples over normal numbers of chromosomes lead to serious problems. In humans, to make another comparison, even a single excess chromosome or portion thereof can cause anomalies, like “trisomy 21,” which is the term for three copies of chromosome 21, and the genetic cause of Down syndrome.

The commercial GE salmon now approved is likely to be triploid only in its X chromosome, rather than its full genome. This triple X genetic trait, which confers sterility, has been commonly reported in the scientific literature. Obviously, the details may be proprietary; note that sterility of this nature may not be absolute.

Under the conditions of modern ocean farming, where brood eggs are allowed to age after killing the females, diploid Atlantic salmon can undergo the spontaneous development of triploidy. This has been scientifically studied and is thought to be caused by the unnatural aging of the eggs under farming conditions. Triploid salmon also suffer from skeletal abnormalities, so they are fed a diet high in phosphorous to compensate for this lack of fitness.

Thousands of these fish escape from their pens into the sea every year, and scientists acknowledge that they can interbreed with their wild relatives. What is the rate of wild diploid Atlantic male salmon fertilization of GMO triploid eggs in Norway? Has this instance of interbreeding of GMO and wild been fully evaluated as a reference point? Wild salmon genomes have been infiltrated with traits from an unfit, triple X organism. Diploids and triploids can mate under some conditions; mis-division in meiosis could yield another diploid from a triploid, and vice versa, by random mutation.

These considerations are apart from other environmental issues of aquaculture, which include antibiotic resistance, pollution and the exploitation of wild, lower trophic fish for feeding.

One suggestion I came across in my research surprised me: the idea that developing countries could farm low trophic fish, to be used to feed their citizens and to sell, as an income stream, to “more wealthy countries.” These countries, in turn, would use that fish, not for human food, but as feed for farmed, high trophic fish, so that the wealthy citizens could continue their more desirable farmed fish diet. Trophic refers to food chain position in the web of life. Chinook salmon and cod are high trophic; sardines and anchovies are low trophic.  

In summation, we know that ocean-farmed Atlantic triploid salmon have congenital skeletal abnormalities, can and do escape their pens, and can breed with their wild relatives. The new FDA-approved GE salmon is an Atlantic triploid with a punch: it also carries an extra gene for high trophic, Chinook salmon growth hormone. That growth hormone gene is not authentic to the original species from which the GMO was derived.

Given the public refusal to accept bovine growth hormone in cow milk, how will (Pacific) Chinook growth hormone in Atlantic salmon be received? And what happens when a land-locked aquaculture system, as proposed to contain all of the fish and eggs of this big and fast growing triploid, fails by any error? We need to understand what set of criteria have been used for the decision that GE salmon is safe from a long-term ecological perspective.

For all of the reasons that the industry gives in defense of GE salmon, I see reasons for corporate profit: less cost to feed the fish, quicker growth, and lower shipping expenses. We are being sold the line that these make the process environmentally friendly. This is a foreign fish with at least one extra complement of the X chromosome, and which is, truthfully speaking, “Franken." There is an alteration in the ploidy level which makes triploid salmon essentially a new species, if reproductive barrier is the touted rule. In addition to malformed skeletons, what other mutational effects are there in GE salmon that we will not see in our filets? I am sorry to guess that that information may be proprietary. And I wonder if the lower farming costs of GE-salmon will be passed on as savings to consumers.

In addition to the possibility of contamination in the wild, we already have problems with many invasive species, like the damaging Asian carp predators of the Great Lakes, and now, the Eurasian ruffle, a small perch and a new, European sourced, fish invader. Perhaps those examples are different and I don’t understand, although I do think that the manner in which any foreign fish is accidentally introduced into native environments is not the question. What these fish do in overtaking native species’ habitats, and the potential for damage to diversity of wild genomes, whether by genetic bottleneck due to habitat loss, population demise or by hybridization, is a conservation problem that was not fully addressed by the FDA decision.

However, the FDA may not be the proper jurisdictional body for considering the long-term genetic impacts of non-native, engineered food organisms released into our environment. 

As a conservationist, I ask, who gets fed? I stopped eating salmon a few years ago, when I learned that farm-raised fish swim in dirty water and antibiotics. I also decided not to eat the wild-caught alternative because there are no longer enough wild salmon to feed the world. Salmon is a very good human food; I have enjoyed it, yet will live without for as long as it takes to get fish and fisheries and the humans who rely upon them back into balance again. I am a fortunate consumer with food on my table, able to choose, hopefully so that there is more food for everyone, and so that habitats can be conserved, one less fish dinner at a time. It is not a sacrifice for me, but it would be for the indigenous peoples of the world, whose ties to salmon and sustainable fishing are culturally ingrained, not just a means for literal survival. Food is a part of culture, a part of diversity, like white rice and its many native varieties, preferred by people whose survival has long depended upon it, where it has been cultivated in cross pockets of humanity for thousands of years.

GMO critics abound and I am one of them, but I think we also must provide alternative and sustainable solutions for feeding the masses of people now living on our planet. Everyone should be able to eat and to eat with choice. One method to bring balanced diets to the people of developing countries, a method which has been used successfully in Africa, is agroecology. This is an approach to food and farming which balances agriculture with ecological preservation. The flexibility of agroecology, which allows a custom fit to micro-cultural farming practices, is one of its great benefits. (The author Colin Todhunter has more information on this practice.) I live in a rural area of the U.S. where “locally grown” is both a major lifestyle and an economic movement. Sustainable alternatives are out there, and I am fortunately living with some of them. 

The advent of genetically engineered salmon with fish growth hormone is upon us. Who does not know that the fishing industry is in trouble? If we all want a plate of salmon for dinner, we really do have to farm it. We now produce enough salmon to bag and can for our pets. The new GMO has been approved and will be disseminated commercially, ever so carefully, to give consumers time to accept what it is. 

Finally, I wonder about the food hopefully being shipped to South Sudan, where a famine is currently unfolding, and if GE salmon will ever make its way to the overpopulated and underdeveloped countries in need of essential subsistence. Who will be enjoying GE salmon with a delicate rice pilaf and a lovely glass of wine, while watching world events unfold on television? What is at risk as we feed the few? What is a fair trade? 

Part of the “inconvenient truth” is that while comfortable lives have been sustained, too many of the people on our planet have lived in stark poverty. We have all seen the photos of children collecting water in South America where oil exploration and drilling have ravaged and polluted their indigenous lands, in Africa amidst runoff from gold mines, children who are hungry in so many countries: what are they eating? Is the U.N. there to help?  Can I buy my “Holland Orange Bell” pepper, and walk away from the electrically cooled and misted vegetable counter, assuming the global hunger problem will be solved?

Who gets fed? Many women still carry their cooking water in earthen pots upon their heads. Will they be offered, for their children’s hunger, salmon over rice? Golden Rice may be an emergency answer for developing countries, one that was clearly conceived for overall good, yet clashed with culture. GE salmon, I think, is a wealthy class, fish-for-profit story.    

Kathleen McKeoghain is a scientist, scholar and writer who specializes in genetics, agriculture, biodiversity and conservation. Follow her on Twitter @SpeaksAspergian.

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