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Biotech Battle: Are Genetically Engineered Fish Safe?
A battle is expected to be brewing over whether the Food and Drug Administration should approve the first genetically engineered animal for human consumption — a fast-growing Atlantic salmon. The salmon is being developed by a small biotech company, AquaBounty Technologies, and contains an extra growth gene that makes it grow twice as fast as conventional farm-raised salmon.
 
“This is a produce that we’re very proud of, we think has a very important role in the future supply of a safe and sustainable seafood product to the citizens of our country,” said Ron Stotish, president and CEO of AquaBounty.
 
The FDA seems to agree. In briefing documents, the FDA says the studies conducted by AquaBounty show that the gene is safe for the salmon, safe for humans and safe for the environment. But some scientists and consumer groups say the agency should slow down and get more information.
 
The FDA says it cannot determine whether a food is absolutely safe, but it can compare it to a food on the market that is already known to be safe and produces no additional risks, like toxins or allergies. In the case of the AquaBounty salmon, the agency’s documents indicate that the company has proven that the genetically engineered salmon have the same nutrients, fatty acids and minerals as conventionally grown salmon and don’t pose harm.
But Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, disagrees. "They need more data. They need more data on the allergy question, and I think most any allergy scientist would say the same thing,” he says.
 
Environmental Concerns
Another contentious issue being debated is what will happen if these salmon escape from fish farms into the wild. People are concerned about whether they would mate with wild fish, out-compete them for food or irreversibly change their habitats.
AquaBounty says not to worry. "There is virtually no possibility of escape and interaction with wild populations,” Stotish says.
That’s because the fish eggs will be sterile, and they will all be female. Plus, they'll be grown in tanks on land, rather than nets or pens floating in the ocean, the way most conventional farmed fish is raised.
 
Consumers Want to Know
Jeff Black, the chef and owner of BlackSalt seafood market and restaurant in Washington, D.C., is not so sure its that simple. He prides himself on knowing his fish purveyors well, and where their products come from and how they’re raised. He sells both farmed and wild fish, but he’s not a big fan of farmed fish. He says many fish farms dump their waste into the ocean.
 
“I would love it if we didn’t sell any [farmed salmon] but the reality is that salmon is the No. 1 selling fish,” he says. He couldn’t keep up with demand otherwise, he says.
Black is concerned that he doesn’t have enough information about genetically engineered salmon and that the FDA seems to be rushing forward. He’s also worried that consumers won’t have a choice. "It should absolutely be labeled, and the public should be allowed to make their own decision.”
 
In the documents it released, the FDA says because the flesh of the genetically engineered salmon is essentially the same as traditionally raised salmon, a new label is not required. However, the agency is planning a hearing to hear from the public regarding the labeling.
 
Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists says the FDA needs to reconsider the labeling issue.
 
 
Dr. Iverson's Comment
 
Genetic modification is the coin term of the 21st century it seems. We are manipulating genes on everything from the plants we eat to the DNA in our own cells, however we must ask: Is it to our benefit or harm in the long run? 
 
What Would Nature Do? WWND? In Nature, mutations do occur on the genetic level that are responsible for what some term “natural selection”, or an attribute that makes the stronger more likely to pass on their genes. In contrast, Nature isn’t taking the genes from a virus and inserting them into genes of corn so it can withstand pesticides or blight. Nature also isn’t inserting incredible hulk genes in a fish to make it grow much faster and larger than its normal maturation. 
 
The allergy question hasn’t been sufficiently answered: Can these protein particles interact with ours and create cross reactions over time? Such cross reactions could cause more auto-immune responses in susceptible individuals. What if these fish were introduced into the environment? How would they affect native populations?
 
The fish farming concept also needs to be debated. I have no problem with environmentally sound farming procedures. That is, the animal is raised in conditions that parallel Nature. Cows crammed in a poop-filled feed lot do not parallel Nature. Fish crammed together in a concrete pool and fed fish chow does not parallel Nature. If farmed fish are to become the only feasible option for the future then we need to look at how we can raise farmed fish the way we raise “free range beef.” Netted fish in their natural habitat and being fed the natural diet seems to be the best way to look at this. 
 
Currently I do not buy farmed fish because of these conditions. I will also not buy fish that are genetically modified because of the reasons I mentioned. We need to be able to be informed on what we are eating. Speak your voice and encourage labeling of genetically modified foods. 
 
Be well!
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