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Genetically Modified Salmon: Why I'm Not Afraid of the "Frankenfish"

By Heather Turgeon |

Genetically modified salmon

Is genetically Modified Salmon Safe?

This week, the FDA heard two days worth of evidence in the case of whether or not genetically modified AquaAdvantage Salmon, otherwise known as “frankenfish” is safe for consumers and the environment. If the approval goes through, the salmon would be the first GM animal product to hit the market, so all eyes are on the FDA as they weigh the evidence.

The salmon has gotten a nod of approval from FDA scientists already, and most people seem to think it’s really just a matter of time until the GM fish makes its way to the supermarket.

Will it be safe for our kids to eat? From what I’ve heard so far, yes. Here’s why:

The salmon is basically your regular old salmon with two additions — a gene from a the chinook salmon for growth hormone, and a gene from another fish, the ocean pout, that allows growth hormone to work year-round, so the GM salmon will grow to market size in 18 months instead of three years.

The growth hormone in question is the same growth hormone that the salmon naturally produce (it’s not an additional or unnatural added hormone), in this case it just works all year instead of its usual pattern of shutting off in the cold weather, thanks to the ocean pout gene. So the result — the piece of fish on your plate — is for all intents and purposes identical.

The real question is, is the GM salmon safe for the environment? One of the concerns is that if they were set free in the wild, the genetically-altered salmon would disrupt the already fragile wild salmon populations. The proposal has been to keep the GM salmon in a land-locked environment only. But that doesn’t exactly get a vote of confidence from me, because what happens when someone captures a whole bunch and tosses them into open water? The way to ensure these salmon don’t mix is to make them sterile, which the scientists say they have done, but I’m curious to hear more about it as the FDA deliberates.

The concept of genetically modification doesn’t give me the heebie jeebies like it does for a lot of people — we have been messing with the DNA of lots of species for a long time now. And genetically altering crops has allowed us to cut down on pesticide use by making them resistant to pests on their own, without the use of chemicals. I’d personally rather feed my son corn with an altered piece of DNA (which has absolutely no health impact at all) than I would feed him one sprayed with pesticides.

So I think the environmental safety question is key here — and the burden of proof is on the scientists to show that this fish is safe for nature. When it comes to feeding my family, though, GM doesn’t really concern me. I’d rather spend my energy where the real health consequences are, with things like upping our vegetable intake and limiting processed foods. We’ve got bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

Image: Flickr/jlastras

More from Heather Turgeon:

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Do it Now: The Perfect 10 Minute Mediation

Teen Trends: Gastric Bands for Obesity?

50 Amazing Naptime Ideas

Concussions and Cars: Why Parents Worry About the Wrong Things.

Why Kids with Language Delays are More Aggressive

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Non Stick Chemicals Linked to Higher Cholesterol in Kids

Too Many Moms Still Die in Childbirth: Report

Your Baby is About to Get Chubbier: Pediatricians Are Switching Growth Charts.

Doctors Misdiagnosed in all Cases of Infant Death From Whooping Cough

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C-Section Twice as Likely When Doctors Induce Labor.

Why I Abandoned the “Readiness” Approach to Potty Training.

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About Heather Turgeon

heatherturgeon

Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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26 thoughts on “Genetically Modified Salmon: Why I'm Not Afraid of the "Frankenfish"

  1. Kirby Carmichael says:

    Between 1-5% of the AquaBounty salmon will be fertile diploids, which mean they can breed with Atlantic salmon. The diploid salmon grow 3X as fast as the sterile triploid transgenic salmon. They eat a wider variety of foods in a greater range of forage territory. They utilize much more fresh water dissolved oxygen than wild salmon. Since the fertile diploids will mature within 5-7 months in fresh water streams, they will exist as mature adults for most of a year in fresh water streams not evolved for the heavy feeding activity of the fish, nor evolved for the between 300-500% use of dissolved oxygen over wild salmon.

    Both AquaBounty and the FDA adamantly refuse to address these issues. Evidence exists (p. 112 of FDA Briefing Packet) that the FDA removed from its preliminary approval report a discussion of the potential environmental harm from intentional introduction of the diploid fertile transgenic salmon into wild salmon habitat.

    Streams deprived of their biota and dissolved oxygen often become overrun by toxic, red anaerobic bacteria. So if you live in Northern Europe or along the Atlantic Coast in the future – Don’t drink the water!

  2. Gretchen Powers says:

    It doesn’t concern me either, but what does concern me is that FDA and the companies think that people don’t have the right to know whether the fish is GMO or not. They think people are too stupid and it will just confuse them, I guess…which may be true…but if it IS the same, why be so cagey about declaring what it is? For my money, I buy wild salmon anyway, which obviously won’t be GMO unless some of the little buggers break free and breed with the wild one….which I hear is going to be hard, but you never know.

  3. Laure68 says:

    I totally agree. People get nervous about GMO’s, mostly because there is fear of technology. In reality, everything we eat has been modified in some way. If we are going to feed the world, we need GMO’s.

    I do agree with what GP says, though, about labeling. I can’t think of a reason why it shouldn’t be labeled.

  4. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    The companies sure don’t do a good job of preventing fear of technology, do they? GP is right… they think the public is stupid and therefore the public should not be given a choice. What’s more though is the biotech companies that come up with this glorious technology also have successfully lobbied the FDA not to allow companies that DON’T use GMOs in their food products to label them as such… also with the explanation that it would “confuse” the public into thinking the non-GMO food is healthier. Add to that the successful lobby to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.” Because that sounds natural-er, get it? They whittle away at the regulatory standards of what can be called “organic” because at the end of the day, it’s just marketing to them. To us, it’s what we feed our kids. You want the free market, then damn it, live and die by the free market food manufacturers! Don’t rely on blurring the lines to sell your product. Let the consumers decide.

  5. [...] safe to eat and whether it posed any threat to the environment. The meeting ended without …Genetically Modified Salmon: Why I'm Not Afraid of the "Frankenfish"Babble (blog)Frankenfish no Match for Local Pacific SalmonThe Bay Citizen (blog)The FDA and [...]

  6. Stephanie says:

    I am a person who gets the heebie jeebies from GMO’s, here’s why. Yes we have been genetically modifying plants and animals for a long time now. The dog is a perfect example. We have traditionally done this through cross breeding or pollinating animals and plants. This new technology is very different. Essentially, snip-its of DNA are inserted into the cell’s nucleus (where the DNA is found). So what invades nuclei the best? Why viruses and bacteria of course! So technicians insert a virus or bacteria with the DNA snip-it into the cell and voila, we have our GMO. Another method is to blast the cell with a ray gun that shoots gold and our DNA snip-it. What really scares me is that there are relatively no other research studies on GMO’s outside the organizations who produce them. Not to mention that many of the studies where short term (three months to be exact) which do not reflect long term effects of eating GMO’s. We are essentially the guinea pigs for the long term effects. Another one of my concerns, is what will happen when the organism mutates after its been modified? We will have no control over the effect. One last food for thought, Monsanto, the biggest producer of GMO’s and the largest seed company (non GMO seeds that is) also endowed the world with Agent Orange.

  7. [...] FoodNaples Daily News (blog)Gene-Altered Fish Closer to ApprovalTruth about Trade & TechnologyBabble (blog) -The Bay Citizen (blog) -CounterPunchall 339 news [...]

  8. jenny says:

    I’d eat it, but did nobody watch Jurassic Park?! Just sayin’.

  9. Laure68 says:

    Well, from what I understand, every crop that we eat has been modified in some way. Even organic produce. Over the history of agriculture there has been grafting and selective breeding which has actually changed the genetic structure of fruits and vegetables. The idea that anything we eat is exactly how nature intended with no human interference is a myth. I can understand why it doesn’t make sense to be able to say “non-GMO”. (Although, since as far as I know this is the first time fish has been modified, at least if they could label fish as “non-GMO” there should be a disclaimer saying there is no proof that this makes it better.

    What makes me suspicious of the whole anti-GMO movement is how the people (at least the ones I have met) have such a strong inner belief that GMO’s are bad, no matter what data they see. They also often lie. I hear so often that GMO’s have no testing, which is absolutely not true. They go through an incredible amount of testing. Now maybe this testing is not enough, but when I ask these people about this, they just get angry and tell me GMO’s are just bad. I also take great offense that they try and convince developing nations to ban GMO’s, even though they could save people from starvation. And these people I talk to are almost exclusively white and privileged, so they have no clue about people not being able to get enough to eat.

    @M_S – you talk (I think sarcastically?) about this “glorious technology”, but I do think it is glorious. Since these are for-profit companies creating this technology there has to be regulation to assure the products are safe, but that doesn’t make the technology bad.

  10. Manjari says:

    Why are some comments missing from some posts?

  11. Leah Beah says:

    It seems a little too soon to tell whether or not this is good or bad for individuals and good or bad for our planet. Yes we tinker with our food supply all the time, from seeds on up, but recently the government has started to say certain of these experiments are not good for us. For example, Monsanto’s “roundup ready” corn and soy seeds and plants, which are able to resist the pesticide Roundup. Which has apparently screwed up a whole lot of nature. And it’s kind of gross to think they spray the heck out of the crops that we then eat. And that animals like cows and pigs eat, and we eat the animals. Based on that, I’d say, wait and see for me. And I don’t want to buy the stuff without knowing I am buying it. That is ridiculous.

  12. jennamom says:

    “I’d personally rather feed my son corn with an altered piece of DNA (which has absolutely no health impact at all) than I would feed him one sprayed with pesticides.” YEAH, not so fast. The way they alter the DNA results in a corn plant that produces its own pesticide, which kills the target insect’s gut bacteria and thus keeps those insects from eating the corn. Feed it to your kid and it will also kill your kid’s gut bacteria (which screws with their immune system.) Researchers studying the recent explosion (last 10-15 years) of food allergies have discovered that kids with food allergies have lower levels of gut bacteria. It’s just speculation on my part, but I’d bet that GMO’s have a lot to do with that.

  13. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    @Laure68: I am not slamming the technology in the least. I am *thankful* for biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, Western medicine, etc. What I am NOT appreciative of is the disrespect for the public, the moving of the goalposts, the weakening of the regulations, the fact that the FDA is typically staffed with former executives of the very industry that they should be regulating. I’m all for free market capitalism and how it stokes ingenuity and creativity that all of society and the world can benefit from. But why do they have to lie by omission? Why are they adamantly against labeling their products truthfully? Those are not actions that engender trust.

  14. Laure68 says:

    @M_S – are the regulations getting weaker? I’ve never worked in the agricultural business, but I know for medical devices and pharmaceuticals the regulations are getting much stronger. Sometimes people think they are getting weaker because they hear more news of “problems”, but that is really because the regulation is stronger and we catch more issues. Again, not sure of the agri bus.

    Also, about the FDA being staffed with people from industry – again, I can only speak for medical, but those who do come from industry tend to be much tougher on companies, basically because they have the knowledge and know what to look for. Those in the FDA who do not come from industry I have found to be rather clueless. You really need the technical experience to be able to decide if something is fit for use.

    About the labeling – from what I see I agree the product could be labeled. I can also see that the companies are dealing with a great deal of misinformation from the anti-GMO groups. (You talk about lying, but I think these groups saying there is no testing of these crops when there is a lot of testing is a clear lie. ) I would rather they counter that with better information. (Not sure how well that would work, though.)

  15. Gretchen Powers says:

    I spoke to someone who works at the agency at a party this weekend and this person raised the interesting point that we should be far more concerned about listing levels of metals in seafood (not suggesting they should, just that this should/would be a greater concern than GE or not GE)…there is just an assumption of safety, but they’re not required to list this…so, as with most foods…eat at your own risk. I only buy wild. I’ll eat farmed from a restaurant, but that is so infrequent I don’t believe it would do much damage to an adult’s system.

  16. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    @Laure68: I usually enjoy our debates, but I’m being tag-teamed by my infant and toddler at the moment. So I will just wrap with this… “because anti-GMO groups are engaging in misinformation campaigns” does not answer to why the biotech/food lobby is doing everything they can to prevent clear labeling of their products. They would rather debate what the meaning of “clear” is and how “the public won’t understand.” Bottom line is that the public’s understanding shouldn’t be seen as a threat to their bottom line. Cultivating ignorance should not be a marketing strategy.

  17. Laure68 says:

    @M_S – I meant (even though this may not be a good thing), they know that, in labeling fish as “GMO”, there will be people who will believe it is not healthy and will therefore not eat it, which will lower their bottom line. These are for-profit businesses after all. The food industry has been able to label things that weren’t true (such as their food has a certain health benefit where there is no scientific data to support this), although the FDA is finally starting to go after these kinds of claims. This bothers me a lot more than trying to make an argument that their fish is really not any different and therefore should not be labeled as different. One big reason why I would like to see this fish labeled is that (I am assuming) this fish costs less to raise, so the price should be lower for the consumer. I’d like to know if I am getting hosed from a price perspective.

    Anyway, they decided not to approve this fish for now. It will be interesting, if they ever do approve it, what the labeling requirements will be.

    Thanks for the debate!

  18. [...] Genetically Modified Salmon: Why I’m Not Afraid of the “Frankenfish” [...]

  19. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    @Laure68: I thought it got FDA approval last week, and without labeling… that’s what I read in the Washington Post anyway. Either way, it’s wild salmon for my family and I from now on, which means to say, maybe once a month now. All fish seems to have jacked up in price lately. I remember when tilapia was my go to cheap once a week fish. Now at $7.99/lb, maybe once every two weeks.
    I am also glad that they are going after the food industry for dubious health claims. Gee, you mean to say Honey Nut Cheerios won’t stop me from having a heart attack?? Who knew… ;)

  20. [...] Genetically Modified Salmon: Why I’m Not Afraid of the “Frankenfish” [...]

  21. Laure68 says:

    What I was thinking of was this.

    http://www.latimes.com/health/la-na-salmon-fda-20100921,0,5887640.story

    Actually, this was the recommendation from the panel. (That more research was needed.) I don’t know if the FDA actually made a final conclusion, but they almost always go with what the panel recommends.

    I was also reading this.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-salmon-fda-20100922,0,6930792.story

    “But FDA rules prohibit labeling food solely on the basis of how it was produced. The agency requires labeling only of a “material difference” resulting from a production process, such as a difference in texture or nutrient content — not the process itself.”

    I wonder why they can label “wild” vs. “farmed”? Maybe because of the mercury content?

  22. student says:

    I usually love the articles written by Ms. Turgeon, but I think she dropped the ball on this one. Artificially modifying an organism’s genes is not the same as breeding two individuals who have desirable traits in the hopes that the offspring will inherit those traits. In that case, the genes are still passed-on according to the natural laws of genetics. Many people do not fully understand the way genes work. Genes do NOT code for traits. They code for proteins which have multiple and differential effects on many organ systems in the body of the organism in question. The current state of knowledge about how genes work is not sufficient for scientists to safely modify genes and be certain of the effects (and potential side-effects) that such modifications will produce. It is IMPOSSIBLE to modify only the desired trait in the organism. This is especially true since genes interact with each other in ways that science is just beginning to explore. Also, while it is difficult to find, there is plenty of evidence of GM “experimentation” gone awry, such as plants producing toxins that were poisonous to other plants or unintended other organisms, of plants losing their nutritional value due to unforeseen consequences of modifying certain genes, and many instances of unintended cross-pollination which harmed non-GM plants. Information on these ill effects is difficult to find since, as someone already pointed out, the GM-producing companies do their own research (and tend to not publish anything negative) and hamper independent researchers from obtaining their seeds to do independent studies. Previous experience with various health-related scandals should tell us that there is no reason to trust a for-profit company to protect our health.

  23. [...] consumers and parents, we have the right to reject GE salmon, and—at the very least—to be clued in on whether the fish we buy has been genetically [...]

  24. [...] consumers and parents, we have the right to reject GE salmon, and—at the very least—to be clued in on whether the fish we buy has been genetically [...]

  25. Fiona says:

    GMO’s are made by inserting viruses and bacteria into the DNA of the food item, which many scientists believe is contributing to widespread antibiotic resistance.

    Another important thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the fact that these GMO seeds or fish, when they spread their stronger genes to other species, they are eradicating the indigenous species completely. They are usually engineered with various types of genes that will basically force the farmer to buy more of the product from the company, for example, suicide genes in seeds so that you can’t collect and replant seeds from the plants. When the GMO seeds combine with the indigenous seeds, they take away the ability of people to collect their own seeds… in other words, we will become completely reliant on GMO seeds in order to live and variants in species will slowly disappear. There are some life-threatening issues with GMOs and they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

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