Who’s Afraid of Frankenfish?

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The Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified salmon — but the public is still hopelessly confused about the purported risks of GMOs.

By Matt Whittaker

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(Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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This week, Pacific Standard

looks at the global seafood industry — how it’s responding to class, consumer trends, and a new climate.

In October 2014, American late-night host Jimmy Kimmel devoted a portion of one of his monologues to the ostensibly non-hilarious topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Earlier in the year, Consumer Reports found that 72 percent of shoppers think it’s important to avoid GMOs. “How many of you do not want GMOs in your body?” he asked the audience. The enthusiastic applause in response sounded like a resounding “not us!”

This was one of those late-night television lead-ins to a video segment designed to see how stupid the average person is, or at least looks, on camera. The show had sent a film crew to a California farmers’ market to ask people why they avoid GMOs. Most of the people who appeared on camera couldn’t say what the acronym stands for and could only indicate a vague sense of unease over genetically modified food — though they couldn’t say exactly why.

One man worries about the “vibration with GMOs” (whatever that means) and a woman says, “I know it’s bad, but to be completely honest with you, I have no idea.”

Yet the segment — which has more than three million views on YouTube — captured another crucial response to the GMO debate. As one man put it: “I don’t know. So I really don’t care. It doesn’t affect me. I’m not sick. I’m fine.”

A little over a year after the Kimmel segment, the GMO debate entered a new phase. In November, after two decades of review, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first genetically modified animal for human consumption — an Atlantic salmon engineered for accelerated growth by a Massachusetts company called AquaBounty Technologies. In March, a coalition of environmental and fishing groups sued the FDA and other defendants, saying the agency’s environmental assessment wasn’t sufficiently thorough, and that, regardless, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to regulate genetically engineered animals. The government this month filed for an extension on its chance to respond, and the FDA maintains that its review process is rigorous. On Tuesday, AquaBounty filed a motion to intervene as a defendant in the case, citing its interest in the FDA approval being upheld. The company denied that its production facilities in Canada and Panama pose environmental risks and said that the FDA’s review had adequately evaluated potential risks. The motion also maintains that the FDA is authorized to regulate its AquAdvantage salmon as a new animal drug.

The public tends to be fearful about GMOs because they don’t really understand what GMOs are.

With opponents labeling the genetically modified salmon “Frankenfish,” several grocery store chains have announced they won’t sell it. Meanwhile, proponents applaud the FDA’s decision as a win for more efficiently produced, environmentally friendly, heart-healthy protein.

All this is to say that the polarization around GMOs continues, with many shoppers left to make purchasing decisions based on gut reaction to headlines. In the public debate, meanwhile, the most vocal GMO advocates and contrarians represent two loud but slender minorities. The majority of consumers in the United States don’t think they know much about GMOs or feel strongly about them one way or the other, says Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Further complicating the debate is a nuanced review covering decades of data released last month by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine; the report stops short of sweeping statements about the purported benefits and risks of genetically engineered plants. The committee found no evidence of higher risks to human health from commercially available genetically engineered crops than conventionally bred plants. But it also noted the “inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects on health or the environment.”

After the study came out, USA Today published a story concluding: “Research may prove genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, but the swelling trend toward non-GMO foods shows that many skeptical shoppers don’t care.”

The public tends to be fearful about GMOs because they don’t really understand what GMOs are, says Sarah Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science. Evanega suggests that negative press and special interest groups have fanned that ignorance into fear by demonizing GMOs to make money on various labeling schemes. When groups promote labels that advertise products (think breakfast cereals) as non-GMO, the effect, called “absence labeling,” suggests to consumers that there is something inherently wrong with GMOs, she says.

If those problems of perception are tricky with grains, they’re trickier with fish. “People do think about animals differently,” Evanega says.

Legalizing a genetically modified animal for consumption on American dinner tables heightens the anxiety of the GMO debate, says Michael Hansen, an evolutionary biologist and senior scientist with Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine.

“This genetically modified salmon is a whole new ball game in terms of food products,” says environment and resources expert Kristine Mattis, whose research focuses on environmental risk information and science communication.

Mattis traces much of the American public’s fear of GMOs to the 2008 documentary Food Inc., which raised questions about the U.S. food industry. Among other things, Mattis says, most American’s didn’t know that GMOs had already been in their food for two decades. On the other hand, she blames industry propaganda for painting people who speak out against GMOs as anti-science. “This fear is very new,” Mattis says.

With some of the public leery of GMOs but not sure why, one way to depolarize and enlighten the debate is to stop considering all genetically modified products as though they belong under the same rubric, Mattis says. Jaffe isn’t convinced that people are afraid of GMOs, but he does agree that GMOs should be treated on a case-by-case basis.

Jaffe thinks the debate around this genetically modified salmon has been overblown. His organization doesn’t see any reason to question the FDA’s ruling that genetically modified salmon pose no unique threats to humans or the environment. Additionally, Jaffe says that, under the current FDA approval, which is only for two specific facilities in Canada and Panama, the amount of salmon that AquaBounty will produce for the U.S. market is tiny compared with the overall U.S. salmon market. “You’ll have to try hard to find one of these salmon steaks,” he adds. (AquaBounty says it plans to expand its genetically modified salmon business in the U.S. and other countries in accordance with necessary regulatory approvals.)

Nor is genetically modified salmon likely to be a major commercial threat to salmon farming industries anytime soon. Salmon farms, predominately in Chile, Norway, and Canada, supply around two-thirds of the salmon eaten in America.

“This technology has not yet been explored on a real commercial scale,” says Gorjan Nikolik, a senior analyst with Rabobank International and an expert on the global seafood industry.

“Faster growth is not the most important property the industry needs,” he continues. “It does not match with the healthy image of salmon and the marketing strategy of the salmon farming industry. Also, currently many consumers, especially in Europe, are skeptical about this technology.”

“This furor over scientists and geneticists changing the genome of a fish is ridiculous. It’s human emotionalism getting in the way of really good scientific progress.”

But George Kimbrell, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety, one of the groups suing the FDA over the salmon issue, worries about AquaBounty’s plans for commercial expansion and potential risks to ocean environments and markets. He thinks salmon in general may become tainted in the public’s mind.

Despite the FDA’s approval, Hansen argues that the science provided by AquaBounty to the FDA wasn’t adequate enough in studying hormone levels, allergenicity, environmental safety, and the potential for increased antibiotic use. The lawsuit against the FDA says the agency acknowledged that up to 5 percent of the genetically engineered salmon produced by AquaBounty at a Canadian facility may not be sterile. As part of a post-market surveillance program, the FDA says it will require the company to demonstrate that the sterility process is “within specifications.”

An AquaBounty spokesman did not respond to emailed questions for this story. In a court filing on Tuesday, CEO Ronald Stotish said that the company had discussed and agreed with the FDA on data requirements and study protocols, conducted substantive studies, and collected data required to establish safety for the animal, humans, and the environment.

“This lengthy and comprehensive expert review process required substantial investments on the part of AquaBounty,” Stotish wrote. “In the aggregate, an estimated $80 million has been spent in developing the AquAdvantage Salmon and in supporting the approval.”

For consumers who pay only casual attention to the issue, rumors about GMO health risks can create reflexive distrust, with people often making decisions based on what they read on the Internet, says Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California-Davis. She was on the team of scientists who evaluated the genetically modified salmon data for the FDA.

“People just listen to their own echo chambers,” Van Eenennaam says.

Evanega says that people who oppose GMOs and endorse stringent regulation are simply contributing to its concentration in the hands of big agribusiness. She advocates a push for more public sector investments in GMO research, which will lead to more innovation and a more competitive market.

In the end, according to Bill Manci, president of Colorado-based aquaculture consulting firm Fisheries Technology Associates, AquaBounty’s genetically modified salmon is nothing to fear.

“We are not talking about producing Frankenstein fish,” Manci says. Rather, the technology just accelerates what conventional breeders would do over many generations of animals, he says.

“This furor over scientists and geneticists changing the genome of a fish is ridiculous,” Manci continues. “It’s human emotionalism getting in the way of really good scientific progress. This has been going on since the dawn of agriculture; we’re just making it faster.”

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