The GMO catch

The world’s first genetically altered animal food source is swimming its way into grocery stores, but is this lab-produced species safe for consumption?

© randimal / CanStockPhoto
© randimal / CanStockPhoto

There’s something fishy happening in the world of seafood and soon it could be coming to a supermarket near you. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been around for years in our food system, producing bountiful crops that grow faster than traditional agricultural offerings. While this trend has been met with criticism, it has generally been limited to plant-based food. Animal food sources are the next step in an agricultural revolution—for better or worse. Should we be concerned? Or is the criticism just hype?

Mother’s Day a year ago, after preparing a meal, I decided to share in the salmon I had cooked for everyone to enjoy. I had been pretty vegan since my junior high days, but gave in to the benefits of eating a fish rich in omega-3 fats, B vitamins, selenium and much more. Plus, it was my first self-made meal ever—I had to try.

After that I was hooked and ate seafood whenever I could during the spring and summer months. I met my protein quota more easily, my skin benefited and I was possibly even a little happier—all things I attributed to eating more fish. As far as animal products went, I was certain that seafood was pure, wholesome and natural.

Lately there has been talk about the safety of our fish supply, especially in the case of GMOs entering the seafood system. It made me wonder if I was rediscovering these tasty, healthful delicacies only to be let down by a food industry gone awry.

In November 2015 the US Food and Drug Administration approved AquaAdvantage salmon, a product created by AquaBounty Technologies for sale to the public. As the first GMO animal product it caught the attention of both protesters and supporters who are still arguing about the health and safety aspect of this new lab-produced food. As health-conscious consumers who seek to reap the benefits of fish, we must take a look at the health ramifications of this GMO fish.

First, the safety of products like AquaAdvantage salmon is tough to judge. According to Jaydee Hanson at the Centre for Food Safety in Washington, DC, the studies that led to the FDA approval for this product were sparse. AquaAdvantage conducted only two tests for allergens in the salmon, one of which he says was totally botched; and the other conducted with a tiny sample size—only six salmon. “This wouldn’t make it to the regional science fair for a high school science project,” says Hanson.

Hanson tried to push AquaBounty’s president Ronald Stotish for thorough testing on humans, but as it wasn’t required by the FDA, he declined. According to Hanson, GMO fish
are classified as an edible drug. The genetic engineering is considered a drug and the fish is a container for the drug. If GMOs were considered a food additive, more testing would be required, but these fish are being created with altered genes and nothing is technically being added to them.

So as far as GMOs go, what is the real difference between AquaAdvantage salmon and wild salmon?

According to Hanson, one of the big genetic modifications to these salmon is that their growth hormones are turned on 24/7 as opposed to non-GMO salmon that only express these genes twice a year during peak growth and mating seasons. As for their nutritional content, Hanson says GMO salmon are two thirds lower in omega-3 fatty acids than their wild cousins and generally lower in other nutrients. He also says that small sample size tests of GMO salmon showed they contained more proteins that could cause allergic reactions if eaten by humans.

“If people want to eat salmon, there is great wild-caught salmon on both sides of the USA and Canada,” says Hanson. “Will you pay more? Yes, but you can eat half as much and be twice as satisfied with it.”

On the other side of the debate is Chibuike Udenigwe, an expert in food science at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. He is in favour of using GMO technology, but makes it clear that he has no special interest in companies that produce GMO products.

“By 2050 there will be nine billion people on earth and we’re still producing food the same way we have been for thousands of years,” says Udenigwe. “It’s an evolving technology. Humans are generally resistant to change, but it would be good to keep an open mind and see where this takes us. Hopefully, it’ll be a solution to future problems surrounding food security.”

© kvkirillov / CanStockPhoto
© kvkirillov / CanStockPhoto

GMO salmon technology has been in development for the past two decades and would definitely help to feed more people, but if it’s simply filler food devoid of nutrients there’s not much difference between GMO salmon and junk food, he acknowledges. He says that given his knowledge of the field so far, he would eat GMO salmon. “As it is, if you placed them side by side
I would not be able to tell the difference between the genetic makeup of a GMO salmon and a non-GMO salmon,” he says.

According to Udenigwe, GMO salmon can reach their full weight and size in 15 months, compared to the three years it would take non-GMO salmon, and still be as nutritionally sound. He says that the only gene being modified is the growth hormone, which helps the salmon grow faster.

“People don’t want to take a lot of risks,” he says. “The consumer now is very concerned about GMO, and the word tends to scare them. There’s also a lot of people on social media who say GMOs are bad. It means we have a lot of work as scientists to highlight the benefits of GMOs, while also evaluating the risks. As it stands now, the benefits outweigh the risks.”

Although Udenigwe supports GMO technology, he recommends labelling GMO products, which is currently not mandatory, so that consumers can make the decision for themselves.

Carla Lee-Johnston, CEO of Nut Burgers in Newport Beach, California, is a self-described “seeker of truth.” She is on the front line of exposing toxins in the food supply and thinks the food industry has gone sour. Her business, which operates on what she calls a “benevolent-enterprise model,” donates 50% of its profits to help feed and educate people about food.

“If people want to put poison in their bodies, then it should be an informed choice versus something that is hidden through lobbying, processing and deceptive labelling,” she says.

After five years studying GMOs, Johnston says she has uncovered evidence that suggests they are directly linked to infertility, gut problems and chronic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  

“It is a science project on humanity that is going to be detrimental if we don’t get a handle on it,” she says. “Until it can be irrefutably argued that the GMOs are not toxic to animals, water or the human body, they shouldn’t be allowed into the marketplace.”

Johnston also brings attention to the fact that GMOs are already present in many plant foods, products and oils that currently saturate the food market. Adding more GMOs to our diet might not be wise, she suggests.

“Just a 33% diet of GMOs is detrimental to our body,” she says. “There’s way too much exposure and internalization of toxic food that’s beginning to merge with our DNA. What are the ramifications of that?”

When it comes to avoiding GMOs, Johnston thinks that personal responsibility plays a role, so labelling is important. When the public consciously votes with their purchasing dollars, companies will either sink or swim.

“I believe if we’re given informed truth instead of lies and omissions, we’ll do what’s right,” says Johnston. “Then we get companies like Lays making potato chips with just three ingredients that are all healthy for your body. They’re not doing it for the right reasons. They’re doing it because they’re losing market share.”

On their website, AquaBounty says by the year 2020 the world’s animal protein demand is projected to be 20 million tonnes a year and their salmon will help to address this need by producing more salmon in less time than current cultivation methods. With more GMO animals in the works, including tilapia and rainbow trout, the company shows no sign of slowing down their technological advances.

Are GMO fish healthy for our bodies? It’s hard to say for sure about this new food product. However, as more research comes to light, it will be easier to make an informed buying decision. Personally, I’m going to stick to the locally sourced salmon I’ve been buying since discovering this aquatic delight and keep an eye on the GMO salmon developments. I expect it will be a hot topic for some time to come.

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