Alan Boraas: Alaska should ban Frankenfish

commentOctober 25, 2013 

The word on the Internet is that the Federal Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of final approval for human consumption of AquaBounty's genetically modified salmon. The initial approval has already been made; the FDA is now responding to public commentary, including more than 2 million objections to GMO (genetically modified organism) salmon. The FDA has approved corn and other genetically modified plant foods for human consumption and Monsanto and sister corporations are booming. But Atlantic salmon with an eel pout gene to trigger a king salmon growth gene would be the first GMO animal approved for human consumption.

Economically, cheap Frankenfish will almost certainly deplete the commercial market for wild, more expensive, salmon. That would be ruinous to Alaska's commercial salmon industry. Moreover, as canneries and fishermen go out of business, the primary mechanism biologists have to manage escapement and hence stable fish runs would also disappear. With Riker models run amok, salmon runs will be chaotic.

Environmentally, escaping GMO salmon will have unknown consequences for healthy wild salmon stocks. AquaBounty says it will sterilize the female Frankenfish. What are they going to do, assembly-line fish hysterectomies? Howard et al. estimated that if 60 GMO salmon were disseminated among 60,000 wild salmon, the natural stock would be decimated in 40 generations.

Brady Dennis (Washington Post, Oct. 18) quotes AquaBounty chief executive Ron Stotish as saying critics of GMO salmon are engaged in "fear-mongering" and portrays his little company as bravely trying to help supply the world's food resources. But they are not a little company. AquaBounty is owned by biotech giant Intrexon Corp., one of the world's leaders in genetic modification, whose slogan is "Synthetic Biology Through Better DNA." It is run by the former head of Monsanto, Thomas Kasser. The company claims to be developing technology that modifies the message of messenger RNA. Control the way an organism is constructed and you control life. Moreover, corporations will own that life; the Supreme Court says so.

We are living in a horrible science fiction movie. We should be worried.

According to environmental toxicologist Olivier Le Curieux-Belfond and others, FDA testing protocols don't account for long-term genetic complications potentially contributing to human diseases already linked to genetically modified foods -- such as cancer and diabetes. Instead, the FDA relies on tests conducted by the applicants themselves, AquaBounty in this case. The FDA only compares the nutritional characteristics of Atlantic salmon compared with GMO farmed Atlantic/king/eel pout salmon. On that basis the FDA deemed the GMO salmon "safe." Testing for genetic interaction is a lot more complicated and has not been done.

For simple organisms, like tsetse flies, genes operate like independent little instruction manuals. Replace one gene with another and you get an extra leg, or no leg: one gene, one trait. But that is not true of more complex organisms where genes not only interact with other genes to produce a trait but interact in complex and poorly understood ways with genes that may have nothing to do with the trait in question. This is particularly a problem if the technique of random insertion is used in gene modification, as is done with AquaBounty salmon. Maybe the desired effect, rapid growth, will occur; maybe something else will.

Some potential problems include the fact that genetically engineered salmon have 40 percent more IGF-1 growth hormones than regular salmon. This hormone causes rapid growth in GMO salmon but has been linked to cancer in humans. Another is that rapidly growing salmon do not have time to naturally eliminate toxic substances, potentially transferring them on to whatever eats them, humans in this case. Healthy Omega-3 fatty acids are much reduced in farmed salmon, which is proposed for GMO salmon. And that's just for starters.

If GMO salmon consumers develop health problems, they will have done the FDA's research. But they will have done it in the grim laboratory of life and death.

GMO salmon are just the beginning of irreversible transgenic modification of our animal food system. GMO trout have been produced and await FDA approval. Caribou and moose, along with familiar barnyard animals, will be modified to be fat, slow and dumb. We, in turn, will become what we eat.

We can't do much but Alaska can ban GMO salmon from being made in, imported to or sold within our state. We must do what we can to make Alaska a refuge for what author David Montgomery has called "The King of Fish."


Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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