Is Genetically Engineered Food the Food of the Future?

By: John McQuaid  |  March/April 2011
Super salmon, enviropigs, blemish-free apples—What does the new wave of genetically engineered foods mean for our health and our planet?
Watch: A Farmer Explains What GMOs Are
When I was a kid, I’d go down to the fishing docks near the New England town where my family spent our summer vacations. The small, mostly one-man boats brought in lobster, crab, flounder and cod, and I’d sometimes watch the fishermen offloading the catch, which you could buy a half hour later in a store adjacent to the dock.
As I got older, buying fresh fish at the market reliably brought back those memories: the clear-eyed whole fish, the rainbow colors of various fillets, piles of shrimp and scallops, still carried a whiff of the ocean and of the struggles of fishermen who’d worked to bring their catch from the wild. But at some point—I think it was about 10 or 15 years ago—buying fish ceased to be a vicarious adventure for me. Wild-caught seafood now might come from a population overfished to the point of collapse. Larger fish might contain elevated levels of mercury or other dangerous chemicals. A farmed fish may have been raised in tight, pest-infested pens, loaded up with antibiotics, fed a man-made fishmeal and—if it’s salmon—tinged with dyes to give its meat a consistent color.
And now, another big change in your seafood is on the way—a bona fide revolution, in fact: It’s called the AquAdvantage salmon. If the Food and Drug Administration gives it a thumbs-up—as it appears poised to, perhaps in the next few months—it will become the first genetically engineered animal ever approved for human consumption.
Some in the aquaculture industry hope this will lead to an era of faster and more efficient fish production, making renewable (hence, they claim, more sustainable), omega-3-rich salmon even more widely available. Others—fishermen, health advocates and environmentalists—say that the new fish could pose threats to the environment and other fish and uncertainties for human health. One thing that both sides recognize: this is the likely beginning of a new era of foods from many different transgenic animals.
When and if this transgenic fish starts to appear in stores (perhaps as early as 2012, the company behind it, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, hopes) it won’t be immediately obvious to the average shopper since at present there is no law requiring a genetically engineered food to be identified as such. The genetically engineered (GE) salmon looks exactly like ordinary farmed Atlantic salmon. But this salmon is the culmination of decades of genetic research: it can grow to maturity (13 pounds) in two years, eats less per pound than the existing farmed Atlantic salmon and the salmon eggs are designed to grow into sterile females, thus reducing the risk of cross-breeding with wild populations.
As science, this is very cool. But as its somewhat goofy trademarked brand name indicates, AquAdvantage salmon isn’t an experiment but a for-profit product. And its progress through the FDA’s mostly secret review process has reignited a political battle.

A Transgenic Revolution

The term “genetically engineered” means altering an organism’s genetic code, usually by implanting a strand of DNA containing a specific genetic instruction from a different species, in order to produce a desired characteristic that nature hasn’t given it. It is often used interchangeably with “genetically altered” and “genetically modified” (though the FDA says those other terms can describe more conventional means for altering genes, such as hybridizing plants or selectively breeding animals for size, body type or longevity). Regardless of what it’s called, transgenic food is nothing new.
The first genetically engineered food, the “Flavr Savr” tomato, modified with an altered tomato gene to ripen slowly, was approved in 1994. It was a commercial failure due to high production costs, but more products quickly followed. The first GE varieties of corn and soybeans were cleared for use in farming in the United States in 1996, and since then more than 100 genetically modified plants have won government approval, including varieties of corn, soybeans, sugar beets and papayas. From a business standpoint, most have been a spectacular success for their producers: 93 percent of soybean and 70 percent of corn farmland in the United States are planted with crops genetically engineered to be herbicide- or pest-resistant.
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as of 2005 more than three-quarters of processed foods in the U.S. contained genetically modified foods. So the chances are good that you’ve already been eating them, without knowing it.
Should you be worried? No direct link has been made between human health and GE foods. Yet some studies have found that a diet of various genetically engineered foods can cause a range of health effects in lab animals. For instance: A 2008 Austrian study showed that mice fed GE corn from birth as part of a regular diet and repeatedly bred had declining fertility and fewer and smaller offspring in their third and fourth litters, compared with mice eating ordinary corn. Another 2008 study, done by scientists at the University of Verona, Italy, found signs of accelerated aging and reduced metabolic function in the livers of mice fed a diet of GE soybeans over 24 months. And a study done at Italy’s National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition found immune system irregularities in the digestive systems and bloodstreams of old and young mice fed a diet containing GE corn for either 30 or 90 days. Those included elevated levels of T and B white blood cells and other cells involved in inflammation or allergic responses.
Uncertainty about long-term public-health effects (as well as protests from both farmers and environmentalists) led to a more-than-decade-long de facto moratorium on any new GE products in Europe, until a GE potato was approved last year.
Opponents say genetic engineering is the latest dangerous development for an increasingly globalized and industrialized food system, where lax regulation and unintended consequences have become increasingly common problems. “The current generation of GMOs is not sufficiently safe to use in the food supply or even to release out of doors. It’s self-propagating contamination of the gene pool,” said Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception and Genetic Roulette, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and a leading consumer advocate promoting healthier non-GMO choices.
On the other hand, people have been eating GE products for 15 years, and there’s been no smoking gun, no study establishing a cause-and-effect link or even a correlation between eating GE foods and public health problems or specific diseases. “There’s very little evidence they are harmful in a way that anybody can measure,” says EatingWell nutrition advisor Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a New York University professor of food studies, who follows the issue closely.
Biotech boosters concur, and say that it’s not just about corporate profits: genetic engineering has the potential to do a lot of good. Plants and animals can now be altered to address chronic problems in agriculture: to resist pests, to be more nutritious, to thrive in hostile environments. Deployed in the developing world, such foods could help to alleviate recurring famines, hunger, even poverty.
Take the case of Golden Rice. Developed over a decade ago by a pair of German scientists, Golden Rice contains genes taken from a daffodil and a soil bacterium that enable it to make beta carotene, a key source of vitamin A in the diet that is found in many vegetables (and also the stuff that makes carrots orange). Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause of blindness, other health problems and ultimately death in parts of the developing world. Golden Rice’s developers ran into patent problems that delayed its debut for many years; recently they partnered with the agriculture chemical giant Syngenta to work out the scientific kinks and legal questions and hope to gain FDA approval this year.
There’s also the Enviropig, a genetically engineered Yorkshire pig developed at the University of Guelph in Ontario and approved for limited production in Canada. It’s been altered with genes from a mouse and an E. coli bacterium to make it produce poop low in phosphorus. (No, we’re not kidding.) High-phosphorus runoff from hog farming and fertilizer causes algae blooms that consume oxygen, killing fish and other aquatic life. Enviropigs’ manure contains 30 to 70 percent less phosphorus (depending on diet and age of pig). And this past January, scientists in the UK announced they had created a transgenic chicken that doesn’t transmit what is now the highly contagious H5N1 bird flu, Reuters reported.

Success or Failure?

But 15 years into the GE era, such clever innovations haven’t accomplished much yet. Nestle says the notion that GE crops will be a godsend for the developing world is, in a word, “Hype. There’s so little research going into third world agricultural products.” Claims of wondrous productivity for GE crops haven’t panned out either. A 2009 review of the scientific literature by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based science and environmental advocacy group that opposes GE foods, found that herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn had not helped boost yields. Farmers who used insect-resistant corn, though, did marginally improve yields, but the report suggests that was due not to genetic engineering but to improved farming practices.
Perhaps the biggest concern for farmers is the cross-contamination of non-GE crops. In 2006, an Idaho-based seed company filed a lawsuit claiming Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa could contaminate organic crops, and in 2007 a federal district court stopped the sale and planting of the seeds until an Environmental Impact Statement (a formal, comprehensive review of the impacts by government scientists) could be done. This past December, the USDA released an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the first such analysis for any GE crop, along with a statement by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, acknowledging the need to both grow GE alfalfa and adequately protect non-GE crops. The EIS concluded the risks were minimal, “based on the agency’s analysis and conclusions that these GE alfalfa lines are unlikely to pose plant pest risks.” It recommended that Roundup Ready alfalfa be approved, either with no restrictions or some limited ones.
A similar case is under way now involving GE sugar beets, and last August a federal district court judge effectively put a ban on the planting of any more sugar beets until an EIS could be conducted. After the August ban, the USDA gave the go-ahead for planters again, but the judge retaliated, ordering the seedlings be “removed from the ground” on November 30. About half of U.S.-grown sugar comes from sugar beets, the rest from sugarcane. Growers adopted the GE sugar beets faster than any other GE crop and say that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to go back, due to availability issues with conventional seed.

Who’s Minding the Store?

In the United States, the great genetic-engineering debate has thus far gotten only modest public attention. Alfalfa and sugar beets do not inspire great passion in the general public, but the prospect of millions of transgenic animals being raised, sold and eaten poses new public health and environmental questions. In a Thomson Reuters/NPR survey last October, 60 percent of respondents said they would eat genetically modified vegetables, fruits and grains, but only 38 percent were willing to eat meat and 35 percent fish.
With gene-spliced food coming from many more sources and making up an ever-larger proportion of our diets, concerns about risks to both the environment and human health may rise. Are we ready for this? It depends on the ability of the FDA to evaluate the science and make sound judgments about the risks. In this sense the AquAdvantage salmon is a good test case of what’s to come—and it doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence.
The United States has an elaborate legal structure set up to ensure the safety of the food production chain. It doesn’t always work well, but it’s there. Genetic engineering is a new technology, and substantively different from anything that’s come before. Yet the U.S. government has no specific laws spelling out how it should handle genetically engineered food.
That’s by design. In the 1980s the Reagan administration basically punted on the issue, giving the FDA, USDA and EPA authority over transgenic foods, but no new legal authority or guidance to enforce it. In the case of GE animals, the FDA has adapted existing procedures originally designed for other things. Gene engineering of animals, for instance, is defined and regulated as an “animal drug.” “This is no drug like you or I are going to consume,” says Jaydee Hanson, M.A., a senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group opposed to industrial agriculture and GE foods. “If I give an animal a new antibiotic, it’s supposed to pass out of the animal before you eat it. Here you have a ‘drug’ that is supposed to stay in every cell of the animal or it isn’t going to work right.” A change in an animal’s genome shapes its entire physical makeup, its biological essence, if you will—and that of all its potential descendants.
Still, the FDA process is generally well-regarded, says Eric Hallerman, Ph.D., a professor of fisheries science at Virginia Tech, who was an invited speaker at the FDA Advisory Committee meeting on the salmon last September. “The review of food safety is rigorous. In this case, before it goes to market, this fish has probably had more oversight than any fisheries product on the market at any time in the past,” Hallerman says.
The FDA keeps its drug proceedings mostly secret to protect proprietary business information. The agency reviewed the possible health and environmental risks of the AquAdvantage salmon for more than a decade and released the first summary of its work only last September. It showed mostly positive results for the salmon, finding no significant health or environmental problems in bringing it to market.
But some outside scientists didn’t like what they saw. “What are the potential health impacts of eating this fish? The answer is, we don’t know. The data package is so pathetic we can’t tell,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Consumers Union, the independent consumer advocacy organization that publishes Consumer Reports. Hansen says the scientific studies cited—many done by AquaBounty—have holes. One study, for instance, could not measure the amount of growth hormone produced by either the GE or non-GE salmon because it was below the detection limits of the test. While that does mean the overall levels are low, Hansen says, a review of this importance should provide definitive answers. “It’s like using a radar gun that doesn’t detect anything below 120 mph, and then concluding there’s no difference between the speeds at which cars and bicycles travel,” he says.

Fishy Business

The FDA is at least within its comfort zone dealing with food safety. The same can’t be said about the environment. Salmon farming has degraded coastal environments in North and South America, Europe and Asia. Typically densely packed enclosures release nitrogen, phosphorus and fecal matter into marine ecosystems; infestations of sea lice, a parasite, have spread through aquaculture operations and into the wild; in Chile, a disease called infectious salmon anemia has recently decimated farmed populations. And when salmon escape from their enclosures and compete with or interbreed with wild populations, it can cause serious ecological problems.
AquaBounty plans to cultivate its salmon in land-based tanks in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and in an undisclosed location in the highlands of Panama. It also puts its fertilized fish eggs through a procedure that makes them all female, and sterile. Those factors, plus the modest scale of the operations, should minimize the dangers of escape. But the company has much bigger plans: it’s told its shareholders that it intends to sell transgenic salmon eggs to buyers in other countries for large-scale commercial trials, positioning itself in the potentially lucrative role of the world’s only supplier.
Scaling up means more eggs, more fish and a higher possibility of escapes into unknown environments, says Anne Kapuscinski, Ph.D., a professor of sustainability science at Dartmouth College and editor of a book on assessing the environmental impacts of transgenic fish. One problem: studies show that the procedure to make the new fish embryos sterile is only 95 to 99 percent effective. If you’re dealing with millions of fish, as fish farms do, that could mean thousands of fertile, highly migratory fish with some potential to escape.
“Achieving those multiple levels of confinement is going to be harder and harder as you expand to other facilities,” Kapuscinski told me. In a comment filed with the FDA, she and a colleague asked, “Does the FDA have the staff, financial resources and sufficient overseas jurisdiction for adequate surveillance of diverse domestic and foreign hatcheries and grow-out facilities?” Kapuscinski also says the environmental studies AquaBounty submitted to the FDA didn’t take the next step to assess environmental impacts if fish do escape in Panama, let alone in unknown other countries. Nor has AquaBounty presented response plans for worst-case scenarios—something that, with groundbreaking technologies, it’s usually unwise to omit. She and other scientists are urging the FDA to require a full-blown environmental impact assessment, something that would drag out the approval process by an additional year or longer.
If the FDA approves the AquAdvantage salmon, the newest supermarket fish-counter quandary will soon be upon us. And if approval is delayed or denied, there are other GE fish in the queue: AquaBounty itself is touting fast-growing GE tilapia and trout. Sooner or later, it seems, food from transgenic animals is inevitable. That’s why food-safety and environmental groups are pushing that it be labeled as such, which isn’t currently required under U.S. law (and is opposed by most of the biotech industry, which fears squeamish consumers will reject their products). Given the issues and uncertainties surrounding these foods, transparency seems a small price to pay.
Without it, we’ll all have to make a greater effort to educate ourselves about where our fish (or other meat) comes from and how it was produced. We appear to be rushing boldly forward with GE salmon with only a sketchy idea of the potential impacts, especially on already-beleaguered aquatic environments. There are other long-term imponderables as well: farmed salmon are significantly lower than their wild brethren in omega-3 fatty acids, meaning a large-scale shift is already under way toward less-­nutritious seafood. The reason for the deficit is the farmed salmon’s limited diet, which is a problem in itself. Farmed salmon consume a lot of fishmeal and fish oil, which is putting perhaps unsustainable pressures on the fish populations used to make them. Salmon that grow twice as fast will mean more production, requiring more fish food to sustain them.
This revolution, with its gene-spliced fish, may be the innovation that, one way or another, finally kills off the low-tech, hunter-gatherer approach of wild fishing. It will also place the “fish farmers” in the same boat, so to speak, as so many of the early adopters of GE crops: beholden to one very powerful company to continually provide the seeds (or in this case, the eggs) their livelihood depends on.
Fish are the last wild animals we still hunt and eat en masse today. Tomorrow, they may be the first animals we create and eat.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid writes frequently on environmental issues.