Monday, September 20, 2010


Looks like the FDA is about to approve the country's first genetically-modified animal. We've been consuming modified corn and soybeans for years, but never an animal, until now.

Before I get into the fish, let me back up to one of my favorite outreach exercises our education team has created here at work - G-MOD. High schoolers are given a lab in a box that contains everything they need to determine whether their favorite snack foods - Cheetos, Doritos, Oreo cookies and others - have been genetically modified.
  • Students break open popular snack bags, pulverize the contents,
  • Extract the DNA, amplify the DNA using PCR technology (which I like to refer to as a photocopier for DNA, giving you a larger sample of a specific part of the DNA to refer to)
  • And finally, use a flash gel to determine whether the product they are analyzing has been modified.
Why do I like this experiment so much for high-schoolers? News flash! Every. single. processed. snack. food. we. eat. was created using "Roundup Ready" corn, created by a company called Montsanto.

Scary modified.

The concept was great - rather than farmers tilling their land for weeds, they use this special corn, douse their entire crop with Roundup (a Montesanto chemical product), then watch the weeds whither away as the corn crop thrives. Fantastic! Until the weeds cross-bred with the corn, creating super weeds. No joke. Read about it here.

O.K., now back to the fish:
AquaBounty Technologies is in the process of introducing a modified salmon to U.S. grocery store counters. According to their Web site the AquaAdvantage
® fish -
Advanced-hybrid salmon, trout, and tilapia designed to grow faster than traditional fish. AquAdvantage® Salmon (AAS) reach market size twice as fast as traditional salmon. This advancement provides a compelling economic benefit to farmers (reduced growing cycle) as well as enhancing the economic viability of inland operations, thereby diminishing the need for ocean pens. AAS are also reproductively sterile, which eliminates the threat of interbreeding amongst themselves or with native populations, a major recent concern in dealing with fish escaping from salmon farms.
So, theoretically, they have all of the answers to the issues faced with Roundup ready crops. No worries! All problems solved! And apparently the FDA agrees, stating in pre-meeting documents that
the studies conducted by AquaBounty show that the gene is safe for the salmon, safe for humans and safe for the environment.

Oh my - an AquAdvantage salmon behind a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling of the same age. (via)

Critics primary problems with the fish include food safety concerns - primarily to do with allergies - and, like the Roundup Ready crops, cross-breeding with conventionally grown salmon.

AquaBounty has answers to all of these concerns, but many scientists maintain that the data to back up these claims of safety does not yet exist.

So, what to do? This topic is so fascinating to me because I actually don't know where I stand on the issue.

We want to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. We want to be sure all of our population is fed and healthy. We want to keep our farmers solvent... but some become outraged at the idea of modifying our crops to grow faster, more efficiently and in more places. How do we expect to use corn or soy to power our vehicles if we are growing only enough to eat?

Same goes for animals - We have a seafood watch list a mile long of fish we are not to eat because we have over-fished and these populations are dying out. What if we could enhance the growing of these fish. What if this advance in science enhanced the diet of families in countries who eat only rice, because that's what they can afford? Hell, what if this advance offered families here the chance to eat fish instead of fast and processed food that are typically the only offerings they can afford?

I can definitely understand the looming risks of mega corporations pushing their brands of herbicides and perfected DNA strains for world domination in their products, pushing out the little guy and ruining the environment in the process...

But I can also see an opportunity for millions more mouths to be fed with corn that grows in harsher environments, due to genetic modification. I can see a faster-growing fish not only feeding hungry families, but feeding them a product that is not over-fished and endangered.

What do you think? Panic? Celebrate? Wait?

For now, I go with wait. See what FDA says about AquaBounty. And hope they decide to label the GMO salmon at the store so I, and others, can make the decision to consume for ourselves.

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