The future is now, nearly
Last month, we told you above the latest developments in genetic engineering. What's next? Genetically engineered Atlantic salmon and pigs.
In last month’s issue of alive we told you about the latest developments in the world of genetic engineering (GE, also called genetically modified or GM), including GE flax and canola contamination of organic farms, pesticide-tolerant weeds that require increasingly toxic herbicides, and plans for a genetically engineered apple. What’s next?
Over the years there have been many shocking ideas for using genetic engineering to make new organisms for food. Canadian researchers came up with two of them: an Atlantic salmon engineered to grow faster and a pig engineered to excrete less phosphorus in its feces. These two GE animals could be approved for human consumption in Canada any day.
In fact, the GE salmon and GE pig are in a race to become the first genetically engineered animals in our food system.
Meanwhile, GE animals are exposing the deep secrecy in Canadian regulation practices and raising controversial questions surrounding genetic engineering, such as health risks and the lack of GE food labelling.
Don’t blame the pig
The GE pig is engineered with genetic material from a mouse and E. coli bacteria. The creators of the GE pig at the University of Guelph in Ontario call it “Enviropig™,” but the name is false advertising.
The combination of mouse and E. coli DNA triggers the pig to produce the enzyme phytase in its salivary glands, to help the animal digest phytate, which is the form of phosphorus found in pig feed ingredients such as corn and soybeans. The result is pig feces with less phosphorus.
Phosphorus from animal manure is a valuable nutrient for crops that becomes a pollutant if there is too much of it for growing plants to absorb. The excess runs off into streams and lakes in the rain.
However, phosphorous pollution is a problem created by huge pig farming operations that house thousands, often tens of thousands, of animals under one roof and spread millions of gallons of liquefied manure on nearby land. Instead of fixing the problem of factory farms, the pig itself has been changed.
Despite its trademark, the GE pig is not an environmental solution, mostly because there are already many simple solutions. For example, a cheap phytase supplement added to animal feed can reduce phosphorus to about the same amount as produced by the GE pig.
Intensive hog farming operations could also:
Like many other GE products, the GE pig is unnecessary.
This little piggie goes to market?
Health Canada could approve meat from the GE pig for human consumption any day. Because the process is secret, no one in the public can predict the timing of a final decision. The university says it sent a request to Health Canada in April 2009.
There is no mandatory labelling of GE foods in Canada. If Health Canada approves the GE pig, consumers who want to avoid GE pork will need to buy certified organic pork or avoid all pork and pork products.
Canadians might look to food companies for leadership but Maple Leaf, Canada’s largest meat processor, has yet to take a position. The company says it will wait to see what Health Canada says first.
“Until such time as a final determination is made on whether GM meat will or will not be permitted in Canada and we know more about the science, we have no plans to establish a position or make any judgment on whether or not we would use GM meat,” said Maple Leaf’s chief food safety officer in a January 2011 letter to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
GE Atlantic salmon
Pigs are not the only GE animals that could make their way onto shelves soon. A US company called AquaBounty is seeking approval for its genetically engineered Atlantic salmon, also the product of Canadian university research.
The salmon are engineered with a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and genetic material from ocean pout (an eel-like creature). The company claims the fish grow to market size faster than other farmed salmon. Just like the pig, the fish is engineered for use in large industrial farming.
The company asked for approval in the US first but now says it is also preparing to apply to Health Canada.
Even though AquaBounty is asking for approval to sell its GE fish as food in the US, the company is not requesting permission to actually grow the GE salmon in the United States. Instead, the company wants to produce all of its GE Atlantic salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island.
The company then plans to ship the salmon eggs to Panama for growing out and processing, to eventually sell “table-ready” GE salmon to US consumers. This corporate plan cleverly avoids a full environmental assessment in the US or Canada.
The company’s plans for Canada were only revealed as a result of documents released by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late 2010. Until then, Canadians had no idea that this company was planning to make Canada the source of GE salmon eggs for the world.
The GE salmon hit the headlines in September 2010 because the FDA announced its preliminary conclusion that the GE fish is safe to eat. The FDA also released a summary of the company’s data. It’s rare that the public is able to see any of the science behind GE foods and, upon examination, independent scientists declared the data on GE salmon inadequate and based on shoddy methods.
Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union in the US, says, “There is sloppy science, small sample sizes, and questionable practices.” For example, the company used inadequate tests to try to measure the levels of growth hormone and the levels of IGF-1, a hormone linked to a number of cancers, in the GE salmon.
The two studies that looked at potential health risks from elevated growth hormone levels in the fish were deficient. The first of these studies examined a small sample of fish that weighed just 2 oz (57 g), even though a filet of salmon generally weighs 3.5 or 4 oz (99 or 113 g).
The second study used full-sized fish, but the sensitivity threshold was so high that the test did not detect growth hormone in either the GE or non-GE sample fish. This means that the FDA actually has no real data to make a conclusion about the levels of growth hormone in the GE salmon flesh.
Also, according to AquaBounty’s own data, the GE salmon may be nutritionally inferior. According to the company’s data the GE salmon have a lower ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than other farmed salmon, which in turn have a lower ratio than wild salmon. The balance of omega-3 and omega-6 in our diet is important because omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation while most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote it.
Critics have long warned that the process of genetic engineering itself could result in new health risks and AquaBounty’s own data points to an increased risk of allergy potential.
It is extremely worrying that the data on safety from AquaBounty is of such poor quality because the Canadian and US governments rely on corporate data, which they usually never show to the public.
Is the secret data behind the GE soy, canola, corn, and sugar on our shelves just as bad as the data on GE salmon? What is the data on GE pigs that Health Canada is looking at, and what questions are they asking?
It turns out that there are no specific regulations to cover GE animals in Canada. Six years ago Health Canada stopped publishing updates about its attempts to create regulations for approving GE animals.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) also tried to develop regulations for GE aquatic organisms but gave up in 2005. As a result, Environment Canada is involved, for the first time, in regulating GE organisms.
There is no specific regulation for GE animals in the US either. The US Food and Drug Administration is regulating the GE salmon and the pig as “New Animal Drugs” under existing rules.
It has been 10 years since the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Food Biotechnology recommended 58 significant changes to Canadian regulation of GE foods, only two of which have been implemented.
Protecting nature’s perfect foods
The system that allows GE foods onto the market currently has no place for farmers or consumers to voice their concerns because the regulation does not even consider the questions of economic or social impacts. This partially explains why GE organisms that have no benefits to consumers or farmers can make it onto the market.
Genetic engineering is now turning nature’s most perfect foods into consumers’ worst nightmares. GE animals are not yet approved for eating but could be on grocery store shelves soon if consumers and farmers do not speak up. Canadians are about to learn if there is a chance for democracy in the future of our food.