So back to "Frankenfish". Why is this salmon stirring up controversy? After all, given the growing consumer demand for salmon, the fact that overfishing and other issues have caused salmon to decline, and combined with the world's need for increased food security, a farmed salmon that can grow more quickly seems like a good thing, right? Well, yes... and no.
As biotechnology continues to advance, even more questions are generated. Such as, what makes something natural as opposed to artificial? According to Dictionary.com, natural is defined as "existing in or formed by nature". Could a genetically engineered salmon be considered natural? After all it is derived from things that exist in nature. A few other questions. Are GE foods safe? Should we as consumers have the right to know whether or not what we are eating is a GE food?
The US Human Genome project coordinated by the US Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, was responsible for identifying the human DNA sequence and was the first scientific organization to look at the ethical, legal and social issues arising from their genetics work. A few of the benefits and controversies relating to GE foods that they have identified are:
- increased nutrients, yield and stress tolerance
- increased hardiness, resistance and productivity
- better yields of milk, eggs and meat
- enhanced taste and quality
- reduced maturation time
"Potential human health impacts, including:
- transfer of antibiotic resistance markers
- unknown effects
- unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination
- unknown effects on other organisms (e.g. soil microbes)
- loss of flora and fauna biodiversity"
One of the first things to jump out at me from the Human Genome Project's list of controversies relates to allergens. Would you be surprised to learn that food allergies are in the rise in the US? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists the top food allergens here. Milk, soybeans, peanuts and wheat are included in the top ten.
Milk is genetically modified when cows are given a growth hormone called rBGH. You can read more about this here. Wheat and soybeans are two GE crops grown in the US. Interestingly, a protein in soybeans can have a "cross-reactivity with peanut allergies", so it's believed that soy allergens are linked to peanut allergies (Organic Consumers Association, OCA). It's significant that since the GE soybean was introduced in the US in 1996, peanut allergies have doubled from 1997-2002 (OCA). Also, intolerance to gluten found in wheat has quadrupled since the 1950's (LA Times).
As the Human Genome Project's list shows, the issue of allergens is just one area of concern. Additionally, the Union of Concerned Scientists includes antibiotic resistance, production of new toxins, concentration of toxic metals and increased risk of toxic environmental fungi as other potential harms to our health posed by GE food. As food consumers, it seems prudent to be aware of what foods are genetically engineered. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a list of the GE foods currently allowed on the market here. However, GE crops can also be found in many processed foods. According to the Colorado State University Extension, "the most common GE crops in the United States are soybean, corn, cotton, and canola.... Because many processed food products contain soybean or corn ingredients (e.g., high fructose corn syrup or soy protein), it’s estimated that 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores include at least one GE ingredient."
So, how do we determine which foods contain GE ingredients? The reality is we aren't able to choose between GE foods and non-GE foods because we don't know which foods contain GE ingredients. It comes down to labeling. This concern has been raised in the past when other GE foods have been created. Aqua Bounty's GE salmon has brought the issue of food labeling to the forefront once again. Groups like the Center for Food Safety and the Truth in Labeling Coalition are requesting that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require GE foods be labeled as such. As of this date, no mandatory labeling law is in place. The Colorado State University Extension has a current fact sheet on the labeling of GE foods here. There's also a non-GMO shopper's guide app for your smart phone available from here and a word document version here.
What's the bottom line? Admittedly, there are benefits to GE products. The FDA states that, "Only food from GE animals that is safe to eat will be permitted into the food supply." I wonder. How can we know at this early stage if the GE salmon will be safe for human consumption in the long run? Is this "Frankenfish" friend or foe? It's true that great accomplishments often come with an amount of sacrifice and risk. In this case, are the sacrifices and risks greater than the benefits? I think that remains to be seen. Until there is sufficient scientific data showing GE foods to be without risk, I believe we should be able to make informed decisions about what foods we choose through labeling. What do you think?
2/11/11 Update: Washington, DC – “On Tuesday [2/8], a bi-partisan group of U.S. House Representatives introduced critical legislation (H.R. 521) mirroring a Senate bill from the end of January (S. 230) to keep the first genetically engineered (GE) food animal, AquaBounty Technologies AquaAdvantage salmon, off our plates...At least 30 House members and 14 senators have written the Obama administration either expressing serious concerns about the manner in which the FDA conducted its review of Aquabounty’s GE salmon, or calling for the outright prohibition of its approval for human consumption." Stay tuned for the FDA's response.