The comment period runs out next week on the FDA’s approval process for AquaBounty’s transgenic salmon. These fish have been genetically modified, combining genes from ocean pout with Chinook salmon, creating a fish that grows more quickly and is thus more economical to raise. The approval hearings have become controversial for several reasons. First of all, since this is the first genetically modified animal to be submitted for approval, one might expect that extra care be taken in establishing a robust process that takes as many potential implications into account as possible. But a number of emails from the Fish & Wildlife Service were brought to light by Food & Water Watch, which raised a number of serious concerns, including allegations that the FDA was trying to rush the approval without taking the time to consider all arguments or to follow rules laid out in the Endangered Species Act which requires the FDA to consult with Fish and Wildlife over anything that would affect wild salmon. Apparently the FDA had not set up a process for this.
According to Aqua Bounty’s website, the company hopes to be part of a “Blue Revolution.” which “brings together biological sciences and molecular technology to enable an aquaculture industry capable of large-scale, efficient, and environmentally sustainable production of high quality seafood.” These new organisms will exhibit, “increased growth rates, enhanced resistance to disease, better food-conversion rates, manageable breeding cycles, and more efficient use of aquatic production systems.”
Some of the specific concerns raised were that although the company claimed that the fish would be sterile, research has shown that the techniques used could yield as many as 3% fertile fish that could potentially interbreed with wild salmon stocks. Additionally, documents in the evaluation referred to older tests in which the salmon were raised in entirely closed tanks, although, in fact the company intends to raise the fish on the Maine coast where ocean water intakes could provide the possibility of escape.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that environmental issues were the greatest science-based concerns facing the animal biotechnology industry.
The ability of genetically engineered organisms, particularly fish and insects, to escape confinement and become feral was considered to be of high concern.
According to Dr. Eric Hallerman of Virginia Tech, “if these fish were to interbreed, the natural population could become less fit, less able to track the changes in its environment.” See the video below:
Others, however see not only a bright future for biotechnology, but a sustainable one.
“There is no inherent conflict,” says Dr. John Phillips, Prof of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, “between sustainable agricultural systems and biotechnology.”
Phillips has been involved in the development of the enviro-pig, a genetically enhanced Yorkshire pig that is able to digest phosphorus more effectively than an ordinary pig. This means that there will be less environmentally damaging phosphorus in the pig’s manure.
“Indeed,” says Phillips, “the enviro-pig stands as a shining example of how bio-technology can be brought directly to bear to help sustainable agricultural systems in terms of the pollution that traditional agriculture imposes on the environment.”
Other examples of bio-engineered animals include chickens that lay low-cholesterol eggs, dairy animals that can synthesize therapeutic proteins that can be used in human medicine, and pigs with organs that won’t be rejected when transplanted into humans.
Clearly there are potential benefits here, but they must be approached with the utmost care and careful scrutiny of all potential risks from an eco-system perspective.
Anyone interested in taking action against the approval may do so here.
RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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