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Flying fish and other fun with GMOs

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 January Issue Newsletter

By Amie Lindenboim

What happened with the salmon?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s approval of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon in November marks the first time a genetically engineered (GE) animal has been approved for human consumption as food. This Atlantic salmon has been engineered to reach market size more quickly than non-GE, farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

Salmon normally grow only in spring and summer. By inserting a growth hormone regulating gene from a Chinook salmon and an “antifreeze” promoter gene from an Ocean prout into an Atlantic salmon egg, bioengineers were able to overcome this natural cycle and keep AquAdvantage salmon growing quickly year-round. These GE salmon grow to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.

In Massachusetts, with the exception of oysters, most of our local food fish are caught, not farmed. However, Massachusetts has a unique connection to this GMO giant – the AquAdvantage salmon’s owner/producer, AquaBounty Technologies, Inc., is headquartered in Maynard, Mass. They are a wholly owned subsidiary of the biotechnology company Intrexon.

Environmental concerns – fishing expedition or fox guarding the henhouse?

Champions of wild salmon have long feared that a genetically engineered “Godzilla Salmon” would outcompete, sicken, or even directly eat already threatened wild salmon populations. Farm raised salmon escape all the time, and they have already affected the wild gene pool. According to this article, these fish, if they do escape, may add the following traits into the wild gene pool: reduced immune function, more individualistic behavior, and larger appetites.

The FDA’s approval of the AquAdvantage salmon stipulates that the fish may be raised only in land-based, contained hatchery tanks in two specific facilities in Canada (Price Edward Island) and Panama. Breeding stock and eggs would be kept in Canada, and fish for market would be grown out in Panama using eggs from the Canadian facility. Based on these conditions, plus specific security measures at the facilities themselves, the FDA’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process reached a conclusion of a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” However, the FDA’s reach extends only to fish sold in the U.S.; there is concern that the farming of these GE salmon may spread to other regions where regulations are more lax.

Amid all the stories swirling around the Internet on this, I decided to take a look at AquaBounty’s website. So here it is, from the fish-engineerers’ mouth. AquaBounty’s website boasts:

“100 Percent North American Raised – The only salmon fresher than AquaBounty’s salmon is the one you caught yourself. AquaBounty will get salmon from harvest to your table in hours, not days.”

Maybe they plan to use some new high-speed drone technology to get the fish from Panama to my kitchen table in less than a day? But the FAA just announced a new registration program for drones…

AquaBounty’s website also makes this claim:

 “Locally-Raised, Climate-Smart Salmon--Salmon that’s raised hours from your table isn’t just fresher & tastier; it will also radically reduce the carbon footprint of salmon farming.”

Wait, how is flying fish in from Panama “climate-smart?”

Source: this statement is the following curious graphic.

The map and language on the AquaBounty’s website clearly implies that they plan a facility in the American Midwest – or that they wanted one there, and though it wasn’t approved, they haven’t updated their website. If the former is true, it seems odd not to acknowledge the current regulatory situation and their success in finally obtaining approval.  If the latter is true, well, that’s not exactly the level of attention to detail one wants to find in a company in charge of safeguarding a potential annihilator of wild salmon.


At least it will probably be labeled

The Omnibus Appropriations Act, signed by President Obama on December 18th, contained a surprising provision: It ordered the FDA not allow genetically engineered salmon to be sold as food until the FDA develops mandatory labeling requirements for such salmon.

While it is possible that this requirement could be lifted when this funding Act expires in October, this is a positive sign that the federal government may be open to labeling genetically modified food in general.


Voluntary labeling guidance, flying under the radar

The same week that the FDA announced approval of this salmon, they also issued the following recommendation: “Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not Been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants”.


Who’s doing what?

The FDA has decided to classify this transgenic salmon as an “Animal Drug,” which makes no sense to a normal person, and is another issue we hope is taken into consideration in the wake of the Administration’s public comment period on revising the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. Established as a formal policy in 1986, the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology describes the federal system for evaluating products developed using “modern biotechnology.” Back in July, the Executive Office of the President issued a memo directing the primary agencies that regulate the products of biotechnology – the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – to update the Coordinated Framework and to develop a long-term strategy to ensure that the regulatory system is prepared for the future. This includes clarifying the current roles and responsibilities of the EPA, FDA, and USDA.

While the “Request for Information” period has closed, the proposed update will also undergo public comment before it is finalized – stay tuned for details!


A study in contrasts: The EPA delists Enlist-Duo

On a brighter note, the EPA changed its mind and decided to revoke its approval of Dow Chemical’s Enlist-Duo pesticide. The herbicide, which combined glyphosate (Roundup) and 2,4-D, was proposed for use on crops genetically engineered to resist both chemicals. Dow saw a market opportunity in promoting Enlist-Duo and associated GE seeds, as farmers growing “Roundup-Ready” crops in many states struggle with glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.”

Environmentalists had urged the EPA not to register the pesticide, citing concerns about drift, the herbicide’s effect on pollinators, and its contribution to maintaining the treadmill of pesticide resistance. They also called out the EPA for refusing to look at any new data or studies on glyphosate that had come out since that pesticide’s approval, including the decision by the World Health Organization to list glyphosate as a Probable Human Carcinogen. The EPA received approximately 400,000 comments arguing against registering Enlist-Duo.

The agency had initially concluded, based on information from Dow, that the two herbicides in Enlist-Duo were not synergistic, meaning the toxicity of the two ingredients combined was not greater than expected based on the properties of the individual chemicals. The agency revisited their initial conclusion when it found a patent application from Dow claiming just such a synergy.

The FDA, on the other hand, has long used the doctrine of “substantial equivalence” in their arms-length approach to regulating genetically modified food. That agency has held that so long as, for example, a genetically modified sugar beet was nutritionally very similar to a standard sugar beet, there was no need to further regulate or label the food. Even though, as in this case, every genetically engineered crop in commerce today is under patent, and patents require a showing of uniqueness…

Join us in Worcester!

As a member of the Massachusetts Coalition to Label GMOs, we will be hosting a GMO Labeling “Summit” during the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference in Worcester on January 16th.

Please join our campaign organizers, steering committee, local leaders, and coalition partners from 1:30-3:30 pm (with optional lunch gathering at 12:15).  Meet face to face to learn about the latest updates and ways to get involved with the GMO labeling campaign.


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