Do We Have a Right to Know If Our Food Has Been Genetically Modified?

Painting by Anthony Freda: www.AnthonyFreda.com.

The FDA is close to approving genetically modified (gm) salmon. See this and this.

We know that at least some genetically modified foods may harm the environment. See this.

And serious questions have been raised about whether some gm foods might increase allergies or cause other health problems in humans and other organisms. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this. They may also cause infertility – at least in rats.

Indeed, as Mother Jones pointed out last week, gm salmon may itself increase allergies:

Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen called the company’s food safety tests “woefully incomplete,” and the group pointed out that the FDA approval panel is mostly comprised of GE [i.e. genetic engineering] cheerleaders, with no fish ecologists or allergists. Why’s an allergist important? Because the company’s own tests suggest that the new salmon could be much more allergenic than regular salmon.

In order to understand the allergy tests, a bit of backstory on how AquAdvantage salmon are made is necessary. First, genetic engineers create a “diploid” fish, meaning like people, it has two sets of chromosomes. Then, to make the final market product, they add genetic material from other fish and breed a new salmon with three sets of chromosomes—a “triploid” female that can’t reproduce. AquaBounty researchers compared the allergenicity—or potential to cause an allergic reaction—of a control group of salmon to both the genetically engineered diploids and triploids. They found (PDF, see page 102) that the diploid salmon were 40 percent more allergenic than the control, while the triploid group was 19 percent more allergenic.

AquaBounty says that the triploids’ allergenicity level wasn’t statistically significant, and although the diploids’ level is significant, it doesn’t matter because only triploids will be sold. But Hansen of the Consumers Union finds a few problems with this argument. For starters, the test wasn’t double blind, meaning the researchers knew which fish were part of which test group. Second, the sample size of triploid fish was tiny—only six fish in all. Third, although AquaBounty is going to try to turn all its market-bound fish into triploid sterile females, the process isn’t perfect, and some 5 percent could end up as the more allergenic diploid. Especially scary when you consider that unlike the triploids, the diploids aren’t sterile. So if they escaped, they could breed with wild salmon.

The FDA simply doesn’t have enough information to determine whether AquaBounty’s salmon are likely to cause more allergic reactions than their non-GE counterparts. But there is good reason to be concerned about the potential allergenicity of all GE foods, says Margaret Mellon, director of the scientist Union of Concerned Scientsts’ Food and Environment Program. “You have this technology that allows you to essentially move proteins around from food to food,” she says. “You can move a highly allergenic protein into a new food, and no one will know to avoid the new food.”

Indeed,  a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who were allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to soy beans that had been implanted with a Brazil nut protein. There is also some evidence that even proteins don’t usually cause allergies can become allergenic when they are moved to a new food. A 2005 Australian study found that mice who were fed peas containing a typically non-allergenic protein from kidney beans experienced allergic reactions.

Another worry is that potentially allergenic GE crops might “escape” into foods. In the late ’90s, the pharmaceutical giant Aventis introduced StarLink, a genetically engineered variety of corn. StarLink was approved for sale in the US, but only for non-food uses, since it contained a potentially allergenic protein. But then, traces of it started turning up in food (most famously, Taco Bell taco shells), and 28 people claimed they had suffered allergic reactions to foods containing StarLink. Although the CDC later found no medical evidence that any of those people had an allergy to the corn, an EPA advisory panel acknowledged that the CDC’s tests did “not eliminate StarLink…protein as a potential cause of allergic symptoms.”

The bottom line: It’s not that genetically engineered foods are inherently more allergenic than traditional foods, but transfering genes does make it more likely that allergens might pop up in unexpected places. “There can be a lot of unintended side effects when you do genetic modification, which means you have to test very carefully,” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. “In the case of salmon, one test on six fish just seems very insufficient for something that will open the floodgates to other GE meat and fish.”

Allergic reactions can – in a small percentage of people – be more severe than just a sniffle or stomach ache. Some people die from allergic reactions.

At least genetically modified salmon will be labeled as such, so people can avoid it if they wish. Right?

Wrong.

As the Washington Post notes:

The FDA says it cannot require a label on the genetically modified food once it determines that the altered fish is not “materially” different from other salmon – something agency scientists have said is true.

Perhaps more surprising, conventional food makers say the FDA has made it difficult for them to boast that their products do not contain genetically modified ingredients.

Unfortunately, stifling the ability of producers of traditional foods to tell consumers they are not using an additive is nothing new. For example, Monsanto has sued milk producers who labeled their product as not containing growth hormone.

Similarly, Scientific American notes that gm seed producers control research, so that independent scientists can’t study the effects of gm:

Scientists must ask corporations for permission before publishing independent research on genetically modified crops.

Liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians should all be up in arms about this.

We have a right to know what we’re eating.

Postscript: Farmed salmon contains less of the healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and more pollutants than wild salmon. See this and this. GM salmon will be farmed (unless it escapes into the ocean). So eating wild salmon may potentially be one way to avoid gm salmon, reduce exposure to pollutants, and increase healthy Omega 3s.

The reason that wild salmon has more Omega 3s than farmed salmon is that wild salmon eat Omega 3 rich foods. It is the same reason that grass-fed beef contains more Omega 3s than beef from cows fed corn, meat or other “modern” feeds. See this and this. If we change our subsidy structure, healthier food would be cost-competitive with junk food.

Eating Omega 3 rich foods can increase gray matter in adults and boost neurological development in children. Conversely, low dietary levels of Omega 3s in mothers can reduce their kids’ IQ.

This is not entirely surprising, given that (1) our brains are about 60% fat, and (2) leading nutritionists say that humans evolved to consume alot of Omega 3 fatty acids in the wild game and fish which they ate (more), and that a low Omega 3 diet is a very new trend within the last 100 years or so

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