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Frankenfish Deadline

By PAM BERNS
When Lewis and Clark made their journey west, they marvelled at the upstream surge of fish they saw: “There was great joy with the natives last night in consequence of the arrival of the Salmon.” Little did Lewis and Clark anticipate the reality today—we have only three percent of the Pacific salmon and steelhead as we had in 1806 in the Columbia and Snake River systems. According to the Sierra Club, back then, settlers were in awe at the abundance of the salmon. They could barely travel by canoe because of so many fish. 
   
Pacific salmon is considered one of the world’s most healthy fish to consume. That is why it is so worrisome for many to imagine risking today’s three percent remaining salmon by permitting the approval of a genetically engineered (GE) salmon that could put the remaining salmon at risk.
   
The genetically-engineered fish developed by AquaBounty Technologies, Inc, combine genes from a sea eel and a Chinook salmon. The fish grow approximately twice as fast as farm-raised or wild salmon. The genetically-engineered salmon grow so fast because of elevated growth hormone IGF-1, a suspected carcinogen that was also of great concern to many Americans a few years ago when rBGH growth hormones were given in injections to dairy cows to increase the volume of milk. The genetically-engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone was rejected by the European Union, Canada and organic farmers in the U.S. Only a small fraction of farmers use the bovine hormone any more, some because rBGH is suspected to affect breast, prostate and colon cancer growth.
   
On April 26 the Food and Drug Administration will most likely give its blessing to AquaBounty—a company that has a facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada and another facility in Panama—to sell its genetically engineered salmon to consumers in the United States. AquaBounty says that these locations are not conducive to reproduction of wild-type salmon because of temperatures, dams and acid rain. 
   
Tens of thousands of Americans have written letters to lawmakers objecting to the genetically-engineered fish. Some fishermen would like to avoid flooding the fish market with too many fish; but most of the AquaBounty fish would be sterile. But according to Ocean Conservancy, if only 60 genetically-engineered fish were released into a population of wild salmon—and they bred with native salmon—they’d decimate the natural Pacific salmon in forty generations.

Remember the Asian Carp?
   
Remember the arrival of the Asian Carp in Chicago? The big, invasive fish easily escaped the ponds in which they were raised and swam from fish farms in Arkansas, up the Mississippi, north to Chicago. Now the carp are threatening the fishing industry in the Great Lakes. The carp escaped when the ponds flooded. Do we honestly believe that some local trouble-maker wouldn’t throw a few genetically-engineered salmon in the Pacific or that these salmon might not escape their ponds and breed with native salmon?   
   
Why do we assume that AquaBounty fish are going to be contained in fish ponds (as was intended by those who raised Asian carp) and not threaten native Pacific Salmon? Approximately one percent of the engineered salmon are capable of reproducing. That’s not zero.
   
Many assume that if we label the fish “genetically engineered,” 
consumers will have a choice between native Pacific Salmon and AquaBounty salmon at the grocery store. Unfortunately, since 1992, genetically-engineered (GE) foods are not required by the FDA to be labeled. Consumers unwittingly buy unlabeled foods every day—corn and soy among them. But if the FDA accepts these fish, this will be the first genetically-engineered animal to be accepted in the marketplace. Genetically-engineered salmon should be labeled as such, otherwise consumers might avoid fish all together. So far, grocery chains such as Whole Foods and Aldi have raised their voices in objection to the GE fish.
   
One of the concerns many have with this GE fish is that it might generate higher levels of fish allergies. Every year approximately 200 Americans die of allergies to fish, including anaphylaxis, sudden low blood pressure and severe skin reactions.
   
We have little data on the potential higher levels of food allergies that could be aggravated by the GE fish. This is no small matter. “In tests,” reports Michael Hansen of Consumers Union, “there was a 52 percent increase in allergic potency.” 

Body Malformations in the First Generations
   
According to a paper published at Virginia Tech, the genes of the Atlantic and Chinook salmon are very similar. However there are some potential differences between the transgenic and the wild-type fish, such as body malformations in the first generations of the genetically-engineered salmon. The diploid (two copies of each chromosome) of wild-type Pacific salmon differ from the genetically engineered salmon that have triploid copies, making them sterile. The idea is that GE fish are larger because they don’t have the stress of reproduction that the wild fish do. However, Canadian scientists found that GE salmon became very aggressive and would eat other types of fish they would not normally eat under some conditions. This behavior would be impossible to reverse if genetically-engineered salmon were let loose in the environment. 
    
The FDA considers the genetically-engineered salmon to be an animal drug instead of a novel food. Many Americans are concerned that the FDA is facing a conflict of interest that defers to business interests.
   
Consumers Union’s Hansen maintains that “To base a conclusion of no additional risk on exactly six engineered fish, then those data themselves suggest a possible problem, is not responsible science or responsible risk assessment. FDA owes it to the thousands of Americans who are allergic to finfish to demand more data on the allergenicity of these engineered salmon from AquaBounty.”
   
According to Jeffrey Smith of Natural Grocers, regarding insensitive tests that AquaBounty did on the IGF-1 hormone, “Levels were detected in only a few fish. Of these, the GE salmon was 40 percent higher. Again, insufficient data combined with faulty reasoning allowed the FDA to conclude that IGF-1 from GE salmon is not a problem.”
   
It is a problem.   

Published: April 15, 2013
Issue: Spring 2013 Issue