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No Room on our plates for genetically engineered seafood

Posted May. 29, 2013 / Posted by: Emma Hedman

Good news for fish today as more companies pledge to avoid GE Seafood!

Earlier this year Friends of the Earth announced the launch of the Campaign for GE Free Seafood  with the commitment of over 2000 stores nation-wide, including those owned by Whole Foods, Aldi, and Trader Joe’s, to not knowingly purchase or sell genetically engineered salmon, or other genetically engineered seafood should it come to market. This movement is vital given that the FDA is close to approving the AquAdvantage® Salmon, the first ever genetically engineered animal to enter our grocery stores, with no GE-specific labeling, even though one poll shows that 91 percent of Americans do not want the FDA to allow GE fish and meat in the market .

Today heralded the added commitment of several stores, notably Target, a national retailer that sells seafood in 1,394 stores; the H-E-B chain with 315 stores in Texas; Giant Eagle with 387 stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland; and Meijer, with 200 stores in Michigan, Indiana and other Rust Belt areas. This brings the total to 59 retailers, representing 4,662 stores across the country!

“There’s no room on our plates for genetically engineered seafood. Consumers don’t want it and price-competitive stores across middle America are refusing to sell it,” said Eric Hoffman food & technology policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “We applaud Target and all these retailers for listening to the vast majority of their customers who want sustainable seafood for their families,” Hoffman said. "We need to see more big retailers take this kind of initiative. We're hoping that Safeway, which has become a real leader in seafood sustainability in other ways, and other major grocery stores turn the corner here and pledge to stay away from genetically engineered salmon."

Those who support the AquAdvantage® Salmon may wonder: what’s the big deal? If you keep tabs on these sorts of things know that wild fish stocks are in danger. According to a report by the UN, 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are fully to overexploited  and will require alternative management to prevent more wild fish stocks from collapsing. When you add the fact that ocean conditions as a whole are changing and that the global demand for meat and fish is on the rise, it is tempting to think that these engineered fish may be the solution that aquaculture has been looking for. AquaBounty®, the creator of AquAdvantage® fish, claims that their product (which they claim to be similar enough to wild fish stocks to not require labeling, but dissimilar enough to guard their patent tooth and nail… food for thought) is relatively risk free and ready for market testing. Well AquaBounty®, and the people who buy into their myths, are not telling you the whole story.

GE Salmon Myth-Busting:

Claim: They say “AquAdvantage® Salmon cannot escape or reproduce in the wild, and pose no threat to wild salmon populations”. So it must be sustainable!

FALSE.

  1. According to a peer-reviewed study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, GE salmon can cross-breed with brown trout, a closely related species. Not only that, but the new hybrids outgrew and outcompeted both the wild types and the GM salmon, meaning that in the case of escape, however low, these fish could have huge environmental impacts.
  2. Though AquaBounty® claims that they will only produce sterile females, the FDA only requires 95 percent of the eggs produced to be sterile, meaning that up to 5 percent can be reproductively viable, and data submitted by the company shows that’s its sterilization process is not guaranteed
  3. Research from the Canadian Department of Fisheries determined that Coho Salmon treated with an engineered growth hormone such as the one being introduced into the genome of the new AquAdvantage Salmon made the salmon more aggressive in response to being hungrier (faster growth means more urgent demand for food), even occasionally resulting in cannibalism. This led to population crashes and even a collapse in the population in the study.[i]
  4. In 2009, AquaBounty®’s fish egg production facility on Prince Edward’s Island (Canada) was infected with Infectious Salmon Anemia, an extremely deadly salmon virus that decimated the Chilean and Scottish salmon farming industries. Fish farms are breeding grounds for disease because of the concentration of animals in such a small space, and If these fish did escape (and it IS feasible, though AquaBounty® wants everyone to believe that it’s impossible) wild populations could be in serious trouble

In the end of the day, a lot of things we humans do pose some kind of threat to the environment. The difference is that for a lot of our actions we have the choice to make educated decisions in our consumption that may lessen our impact, and those decisions in turn have the opportunity to push policy or production to meet our concerns. As it stands, if GE salmon is passed it will have no labeling and we will loose our ability to shop smarter, and control our individual impacts. 

Claim: Genetically engineered salmon are the same as other wild and farmed salmon, and just as safe to eat.

FALSE.

  1. According to the Ocean Conservancy, six chemicals (including folic acid, niacin, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc) are more than 10 percent different between the GE Salmon and conventionally farmed salmon.
  2. Unfortunately, the FDA decided these fish will be safe to eat based solely on data provided by the GE salmon company. Of potential concern to human health is the fact that, according to data submitted to FDA, overall all GE salmon have 40 percent higher levels of the hormone called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which may increase the risk of certain cancers [ii] if absorbed and biologically active in the human body.
  3. There has been concern from a number of parties, including the Consumers Union, that there may be an increased rate of allergens present in GE salmon, which could pose a threat to consumers [iii]. Unfortunately,the findings on allergy risk were based on only six fish [iv] (this sample size wouldn't have been acceptable in a high school lab experiment!).
  4. GE Salmon suffer from skeletal deformities, jaw erosion, inflammation, increased susceptibility to disease, and increased mortality. This raises concern both for animal welfare, and potentially for humans eating sick fish.

AquaBounty® claims that they do not need to label their fish as genetically engineered, because they are not adequately different from the natural product to warrant it. However, most of the studies addressing the salmon’s nutritional and health value is confidential, and what is available is frequently based on extremely small (and therefore not scientifically rigorous) sample sizes. First, people should be able to know exactly what they are putting into their bodies, period. Not labeling the GE salmon would be a huge injustice to consumers everywhere.

Claim: The FDA is well-equipped to assess the environmental and human health risks of genetically engineered salmon and should be trusted.

FALSE.

The law isn’t keeping up with technology. We are falling into a disturbing pattern of approving products under laws that are intended for other purposes: in this case, approving a genetically modified salmon, a living, breathing, mobile organism for human consumption … under the “new animal drugs” regulations that were intended to regulate chicken feed additives and cow vaccines.

Maybe the risk associated with GE Salmon is acceptable, maybe it’s not. The point is that we cannot know under current conditions. If we are going to take the huge step of approving this for human consumption, it should be under regulations designed specifically to deal with this kind of technological advance, with specialized regulations, specialized containment, disposal and recall plans in case of problems, legal ramifications for those who create and distribute the fish, and rigorous scientific testing that is transparent and open to the public.

More importantly, we need to stop taking a reactionary attitude towards our food, only acting after something causes problems. We need to be precautionary and put more effort into stopping problems before they arise, instead of waiting for disaster to strike and then trying to fix it.

“Simply put, this genetically engineered fish is a problem masquerading as a solution,” said Heather Whitehead, online campaigns director at Center for Food Safety. “It’s bad for the consumer, bad for the environment, and bad for our native salmon. Since these fish will likely not be labeled, consumers have to rely on retailers like these to reject unwanted and unnecessary GE fish. We will continue to pressure other retailers to side with consumers.” 

Friends of the Earth strongly opposes the approval and commercialization of genetically engineered fish until the FDA conducts a comprehensive and independent Environmental Impact Statement, and until proper laws are on the books to deal with the novel risks to human health and the environment posed by genetically engineered fish and other genetically engineered animals. We view the commitments made by these retailers to keep GE Seafood off our plates as a step in the right direction, and encourage everyone to make the to show your commitment to sustainably produced seafood and consumer choice.

[i] Devlin, R.H et al. “Population Effects of Growth Hormone Transgenic Coho Salmon Depend on Food Availability and Genotype by Environment Interactions” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101.25 (2004): 9303-308

[ii] Yu H. and T. Rohan. “Role of the Insulin-Like Growth Factor Family in Cancer Development and Progression.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol. 92, iss. 18. September 20, 2000; and Moschos, S. and C. Mantzoros. “The Role of the IGF System in Cancer: From Basic to Clinical Studies and Clinical Applications.” Oncology, vol. 63 iss. 4. November 4, 2002.

[iii] Hansen, Michael. Comments of Consumers Union on Genetically Engineered Salmon, Food and Drug Administration Docket No. FDA-201034-N-0001, Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee meeting. Rep. Consumers Union, 16 Sept. 2010. Web. <http://www.consumersunion.org/pdf/CU-comments-GE-salmon-0910.pdf>

[iv] Ibid.

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