The Creepy Science Behind Genetically Engineered "Frankenfish" About to Enter Our Food Supply Unlabeled
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When the FDA announced it found the genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon safe just before Labor Day, news headlines and even Alaska Senator Mark Begich called it a "frankenfish." A closer look at AquAdvantage makes it seem unlikely that Mary Shelley could have ever dreamed up anything as wild as the fast growing GE salmon. Even more worrisome is the science used to justify the salmon's safety, which Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen calls "sloppy," "misleading," and "woefully inadequate."
If approved, AquAdvantage will be the first genetically engineered animal to directly enter the U.S. food supply -- a fact that raises the stakes of the FDA's approval process, as it sets a precedent for all future GE animals. Because of a regulatory decision in the 1980s that no new laws are needed to regulate genetically engineered foods, the FDA is actually regulating the GE salmon as a drug. The next step in the approval process will be a series of public meetings held September 19-21. Already, a number of groups, including Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and Organic Consumers Association have written to President Obama, urging him to discontinue the approval process for the GE salmon. (Full disclosure: I serve on the Policy Advisory Board of the Organic Consumers Association, but I was not a part of the decision to sign onto this letter.)
The company that developed the GE salmon, AquaBounty Technologies, claims the fish grows to market weight in 16 to 18 months instead of the usual 30 required for farmed Atlantic salmon. The fish was created by inserting genetic material of both Chinook (the largest variety of Pacific salmon) and ocean pout (an eel-like fish) into the genome of Atlantic salmon. The commercialized fish will all be females, making them unable to breed. AquaBounty's intellectual property will be further protected because the fish will be sterile, as they will all be triploids (fish with three complete sets of chromosomes instead of the usual two).
How to Make Frankenfish
To create the fish, AquaBounty begins with eggs of GE Atlantic salmon females and fertilizes them with irradiated sperm of another similar fish species, Arctic char. The eggs are then pressure-treated, causing them to produce diploid offspring (i.e. fish with two complete sets of chromosomes), with both sets of chromosomes originating from the GE female salmon. The all-female GE diploid salmon will then be treated with 17-methyltestosterone, a hormone that turns the fish into what AquaBounty calls "neomales" -- genetically female fish that produce milt (sperm) instead of eggs. The milt from the GE neomales will fertilize the eggs of non-GE Atlantic salmon, and the resulting fertilized eggs will be treated with pressure to produce the final product, a line of all-female triploid GE Atlantic salmon.
According to AquaBounty's plans, the GE salmon will begin their lives at a hatchery in Prince Edward Island, Canada and then transfer to a grow-out facility in Panama. Unlike most salmon, which begin their lives in freshwater before transferring to saltwater, the GE salmon will live their entire lives in freshwater. The good news is that currently there are no plans to raise the GE salmon in open net pens in the ocean, a method of salmon farming that has resulted in massive damage to wild salmon populations as well as frequent escapes of farmed salmon into the ocean.
While farmed salmon have been an environmental catastrophe in countries like Canada and Norway, it seems that environmental concerns over AquAdvantage take a backseat to safety concerns. The science AquaBounty provided the FDA was sloppy in a number of ways, and yet the FDA accepted it and declared the fish safe. Because the approval of AquAdvantage salmon will set a precedent, it is important that the FDA set its bar for solid science high, signaling to any company that wishes to commercialize a genetically engineered animal that it must completely prove its safety if it hopes to put its product on the market. Instead, according to Hansen, "the FDA appears to have set its bar an inch from the ground."