Saturday, December 1, 2012

Frankenfish and the World of Genetically Modified Food

Frankenfish and the World of Genetically Modified Food

The scary ways our food supply is being screwed with and why you might not know you're eating altered fish

By Gretchen Voss, Photography By Dan Forbes
Frankenfish and the World of Genetically Modified Food The scary ways our food supply is being screwed with and why you might not know you're eating altered fish
Really, who among us has looked at a salmon glistening in the grocery store and wondered, Where did you come from?

If you've thought about it at all, you've probably assumed it's a matter of the birds and the bees: Girl fish meets boy fish, they hit it off, and he showers her thousands of eggs with his sperm. A little while later their offspring are hatched, grow to 10 pounds in about three years, and land on our grills.

Now, however, a biotechnology company near Boston wants to change all that. AquaBounty Technologies (ABT), using some snazzy feats of engineering and genetic code manipulations, has developed a fish—called AquAdvantage Salmon—that grows twice as fast as conventional ones. Pending FDA approval, ABT could be the first company in the world to market a genetically engineered animal as food.

In other words, the birds and the bees are about to get a turbo boost. On Prince Edward Island, in a secure facility surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence and monitored by video cameras and guards, ABT has concocted a "product" (salmon eggs) that it calls a triploid hemizygous all-female Atlantic salmon. Though the president of ABT, Ronald L. Stotish, describes the decidedly unsexy reproductive process as "a very simple thing," it is anything but. Because the growth hormones of regular Atlantic salmon are turned on only about three months out of the year, ABT created a genetic cocktail that makes the fish grow continuously. The company's scientists did this via a new gene construct that combines the growth hormones of a Chinook salmon with a regulator gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout. Then they injected the new gene into Atlantic-salmon eggs. The resulting fish reach market size in 18 months, half the usual time—so they can land on our grills faster.

The company claims that the new salmon, with its "shorter production cycles and increased efficiency of production," is one biotechnology answer to a global food problem. That it will provide more food for a hungry world by advancing the already $86 billion farmed-fish business, the fastest-growing segment of the seafood industry worldwide. And that it's perfectly safe for humans to consume. At least, ABT claims, there's no proof that screwing with an animal's genome makes it unsafe to eat.

So far, the FDA agrees. After reviewing and accepting the studies submitted by ABT this past fall, the agency is now considering whether to approve its application. If it does, these new fish could make their way onto our plates in the next few years.

But not without swimming in a sea of Frankenfish controversy. Critics are incensed that the FDA is regulating this transgenic animal food as an animal drug—since the DNA construct inserted into salmon eggs fits the definition of a drug—which means it's not undergoing the standard evaluations that foods typically do. They are concerned about dangerous, unanticipated health problems for humans who eat this food, and worried that an approval will pave the way for the other genetically engineered animals currently in the research-and-development pipeline. And what has them really burning: Consumers won't have the freedom to accept or reject this altered fish, since it most likely won't be labeled as such.

It may seem like a scary new Orwellian world, but futuristic biotechnology has already been replacing traditional agriculture, without the consent of consumers. Until now, however, that technology was confined to the genes of plants we eat. Not animals.

Tampering with Nature
It was in the 1970s that scientists discovered they could transfer genes from the DNA of one species into that of a wholly different one—that they could, in essence, monkey with Mother Nature and bust through the natural barriers created by millions of years of evolution. In the wake of this breakthrough, genetic engineers began creating artificial gene combinations by splicing genetic material from bacteria, viruses, and other organisms and forcibly injecting them into plant genomes to create novel traits.

At the time, the big hope of agricultural biotechnology was to create more nutritious food and more productive crops to feed a hungry world. In reality, what the companies developed were either crops with built-in pesticides (for example, Bt corn, which has genes from a soil bacterium inserted into its DNA so that every cell of the plant produces pesticidal toxins) or herbicide tolerance (such as Roundup Ready soybeans, which are engineered to withstand Roundup weed killer). In other words, the focus wasn't on cultivating food that was better for us, but on increasing profits for these companies.

By the 1990s, companies such as Monsanto, the developer of Roundup Ready seeds, were positioned to bring their products to market, and the U.S. government needed to devise a game plan to oversee these newfangled food crops. "The government decided that biotechnology was the technology of the 21st century and the U.S. had to lead the world," says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit for public interest and environmental advocacy. "As part of that commitment, they decided on a very lax regulatory system."

That's because the FDA's 1992 policy on genetically modified (GM) foods was based on this premise: The foods derived from these new methods weren't different from other foods in any meaningful way—or at least, the FDA said, it wasn't aware of any information that indicated they were different. And so no safety studies were necessary, no labels were required, and ultimately, the food producers were responsible for policing themselves.

The regulatory process, says Freese, is a glorified rubber stamp. "It's totally unlike the drug-approval process, in which the FDA actually takes responsibility," he says.

"This is a radical new technology. We need very good, careful, close regulation, and we just don't have that. We can't be assured of the safety of any of these genetically engineered organisms."

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the FDA doesn't have the authority to require that companies seek an approval for GM crops. It provides only voluntary consultations. "So GM varieties that have never been fed to animals in rigorous safety studies, let alone to humans, are approved for sale in grocery stores," says Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception.

And we have been chowing down on mass quantities of the stuff since the mid 1990s, without any labels to give us pause.

Indeed, as much as 80 percent of the processed foods filling the supermarket aisles and overflowing our shopping carts—including infant formula, salad dressing, bread, cereal, crackers, cookies, veggie burgers, frozen yogurt, protein powder, and alcoholic beverages—contain an engineered ingredient, mostly from soy, canola, and corn.

Playing Genetic Roulette
But now the concern that these genetically manipulated foodstuffs are harming human health is growing. Inserting a gene into a plant's genome is a random and haphazard process that allows no control over where the gene actually ends up in the plant's otherwise carefully constructed DNA. Insertions can show up inside other genes, can delete natural genes or permanently turn them on or off, and can cause significant mutations near the insertion site. For instance, one study found that a gene known to be a corn allergen was turned on in GM corn, though it was turned off in its conventional parent.

"It's genetic roulette," says Smith. "You can create carcinogens, anti-nutrients, toxins. We don't understand the language of DNA enough to predict what might happen. It's an infant technology, and we're making changes that are permanent in the gene pool of species."

The potential for allergenicity is an acknowledged problem, says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. In fact, food allergies doubled from 1997 (the year Bt corn entered our diets) to 2002. The EPA recently gave the University of Chicago a grant to assess whether the pesticides produced in genetically modified plants might be the culprit.

Agricultural biotechnology companies roundly dismiss these fears, saying that millions of Americans have been eating GM foods without ill effect. So if they are making us sick, why don't we know about it?

"The trouble is we don't have controls. We don't know what we're eating because we don't have labeling, so it's all just sort of a crapshoot," says Freese. "The GM corn is mixed in with regular corn, and then it enters the food supply. It's really impossible to trace the impacts." Since neither consumer nor manufacturer actually knows how much GM content is in their food, it's near impossible to investigate properly and expose a link to illness.

If the lab-created foods currently on the market are causing common diseases, we may not be able to identify the source of the problem for decades, if ever. Still, in May 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, an international association of physicians interested in environmental impacts on human health, called for an immediate moratorium on GM foods. "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption," it stated in a position paper, citing infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in the liver, kidney, and gastrointestinal systems. The group advised physicians to ask their patients to try to avoid GM foods, as "there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects."

And yet, just this year, the USDA approved genetically engineered sugar beets (used to make sugar) and alfalfa. Next up: the first animal genetically engineered for food, in the form of one fast-growing salmon.

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