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    15 Years Of FDA Stalling? Anti-Science Beliefs About Genetically Engineered Salmon
    By Hank Campbell | August 6th 2011 12:55 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

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    Sometimes the precautionary principle can run amok.   Anti-science people who don't accept climate science use it to prevent meaningful policy actions related to the environment while anti-science people who don't accept biology block efforts to improve food sources so crops can grow in areas where the world's poorest live, or improve yields to feed more people, and use silly labels like "Frankenfood."

    Scientifically, food that is mutated randomly by high-energy cosmic rays is not superior just because it is 'natural', any more than shooting a tiger that wants to eat your dog is unnatural because you killed the tiger with a gun.   Precisely engineered changes that improve yields help everyone; it keeps costs lower for poor people, it helps the environment because less waste means less fossil fuels used per person fed, and it's culturally good because it shows that a progressive society wants to make life better for people and not hide in fear from science.

    Given that, why would three administrations, one Republican and two Democrat, stonewall approval of what is arguably the most thoroughly tested genetic modification in the world?  Salmon have been genetically modified since I was a kid yet none have been approved for food production yet due to constant political lobbying by anti-science environmentalists.

    The AquAdvantage salmon has been under federal regulatory review by the FDA since 1995.   What is so scary about this fish, such a worry that Congress and presidents of both sides are worried  they will alienate environmentally concerned people?   It carries a gene from Chinook salmon that speeds growth and improves feed efficiency in farm-raised fish.

    That's it.  

    In that same period, a dozen dangerous drugs have been pulled off the market that had gotten FDA approval; there were expensive settlements for Vioxx, used to treat arthritis, because the drug doubled the risk of heart attacks and Avandia, once the world’s best-selling diabetes drug, is untouchable after the FDA restricted it and Europeans pulled it completely.

    Activists cite the precautionary principle and insist this genetically enhanced fish might force the wild salmon population into extinction if they get into the wild or might pose an increased allergy risk for consumers.   Where is the science data for those 'might' insinuations?   Well, there is none, it is literally a red herring - because herring contain far more allergens than these salmon.

    What is the approval process for animals created through 'conventional' modification?  Trivial.   And the FDA has agreed there is no risk in these salmon but political shelling by unpleasant anti-science leftists has continued to keep them from granting approval.

    With a slippery slope on one side and the precautionary principle on the other, no science would ever get done if we let irrational concerns lead to blockades.   15 years with no problems found is plenty of time for approval.   Science needs to buck its political allies on this one and stand up for progress.

    Citation: Alison L Van Eenennaam&William M Muir, 'Transgenic salmon: a final leap to the grocery shelf?', Nature Biotechnology 29, 706–710 (2011) doi:10.1038/nbt.1938 Published online 05 August 2011

    Comments

    With the barrage of staunch and irrational concerns and beliefs that the meme of science seems to attract from both the right and the left, it's a marvel that it remains in the pool of natural selection at all. There must be something something basically functional and reliable about it.

    Hank,

    When you're talking about ideological motivations, you're talking about the foot-soldiers in the anti-GMO 'movement'. If you look at the leaders of the 'movement', you'll discover that money is the motivation, pure and simple. If no money could be made opposing GMOs, the NGOs would wander off in search of a different victim.

    Gerhard Adam
    Hank,

    While I agree with your point regarding science, this isn't particularly about science (despite what some of the anti-GMO advocates run on about).  In my view, the serious question here that keeps being overlooked is the patenting and licensing of lifeforms, that MIGHT out-compete more natural foods.  That's the distinguishing characteristics of "natural" versus "engineered".

    If the only point was to improve something (like using fertilizer), then there's no real problem.  However, when we begin to introduce life-forms that someone owns, then we are definitely no longer in the realm of the "natural", because there is now a corporate potential to compete with naturally occurring foods to gain total control over a segment of the food supply.  I, for one, am not ever going to be comfortable with that kind of control in a business.

    If the intent is truly that which is proposed by Aqua Bounty Technologies, so that these GMO salmon will only be raised in facilities inland and have no opportunity to breed with wild populations, then they have tentatively address the issue and I don't have a problem with it, because it naturally segregates the two environments.

    I am completely opposed to the idea that such technologies should ever be in the hands of private corporations to manage, patent, and license.  I'm not concerned about the relative safety of the foods, since that will undoubtedly be tested to any standard desired.  However, it is less clear how these things will be handled if companies go out of business.  If patent-holders deny entry into the market.  If products are released into the environment (by intent, accident, or sabotage).  These are the important questions that need answers and to date, I'm not satisfied with what I'm hearing. 

    I certainly don't want to hear future discussions about how such companies can't be "allowed to fail" because we are too dependent on them.  In my view, corporations have become parasites on the government and taxpayers because they've been coddled and allowed to protect themselves in that fashion, rather than competing in and trying to form "free markets".
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Scientifically, food that is mutated randomly by high-energy cosmic rays is not superior just because it is 'natural', any more than shooting a tiger that wants to eat your dog is unnatural because you killed the tiger with a gun.
    BTW ... that's not actually true.  Food doesn't mutate randomly by high-energy cosmic rays, because it takes time for such a mutation to work its way through a population before it becomes fixed enough for that kind of claim.

    GMO, short-circuits that entire process by producing a population ready-made.  This allows no opportunities for co-evolution or adaptation and (in those cases where competition with other species could occur), represents a major disruption to natural selection (which would be more analogous to catastrophic events, rather than random mutations).

    It's similar to catching diseases.  If I catch a disease, then it's considered "natural" because it depends solely on my encounters with people and my own immune systems, etc.  If you intentionally inject me with the disease, it is rather a different situation. 

    The distinction that most people make between "artificial" and "natural" is the implicit belief that "natural" provides for a level playing field.  In other words, we all have the same biological chance, governed only by our genetics and good/bad luck.  Once human intervention occurs, then there is a sense that the deck can now be manipulated or stacked against us, and any concept that we all have an equal chance becomes suspect.  While I'm not suggesting that this is necessarily true, it has been supported by our history, which strongly suggests that humans will always introduce bias and, wherever possible, look to gain advantage for themselves.  This is something that no one would ever accuse "nature" of, regardless of how good or bad circumstances might be.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    I can accept that distinction but my point remains;  if we can engineer precise changes to an organism's DNA sequence that is superior to belief that 'nature' breaking chromosomes into pieces that reattach randomly, and sometimes creating genes that didn't exist before, is superior.
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, "superiority" is a value judgment and that remains to be seen.  Antibiotics were also "superior" unless we encountered antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

    The problem is that "precise" and "biology" don't go together conceptually.  I also have a concern that this is a direct result of constantly imagining that biological systems are "just machines".  They aren't.  They will change, they will evolve, and our "precise" changes will no longer be as precise nor potentially as manageable.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm not with an ngo, I have no horse in the race; I'm just a consumer and an inhabitant of the same spaceship as the rest of you. The issue here is one of environmental protection of the animals that naturally inhabit that spaceship with us. I'm pretty sure the AquaBounty fish would be safe to eat; I am not convinced they are safe for the planet in terms of that these fish might out-compete natural salmon and throw off the ocean ecosystem. That inland breeding ground is adjacent to a river. and it's just one facility. what about as the number of breeding farms expands? Who watches to make sure they have adequate safeguards? What about corporate espionage or someone who releases salmon into the ocean just to be a jerK? All the time we read about facilities that were supposed to be so safe and other new inventions that are supposed to be so safe. If teh FDA approves a drug that ends up harming or even killing people, that is tragic, but it does not change the planet forever. This could.

    Hank
    Sure, but that is what I mean about the precautionary principle gone amok - it's why conservatives don't want to do anything to slow down global warming, there is a slippery slope of 'what if?' possibilities.

    Natural is a word used incorrectly.  Environmentalists have used any number of invasive species as a 'natural' cure for environmental control - and it got out of control fast.  These scientists are not activists, the authors writing in Nature have no financial interests, this fish has been tested thoroughly and they are a lot more trustworthy than environmentalists because they are not zealots.

    Can sabotage occur?  Sure, but an organic farmer is the one who killed all those people in Norway, so he could just have easily put completely natural and organic strychnine in food and killed people just to be a jerk.  Nothing will ever get done if we let a remote possibility stop progress.     These farm-raised salmon will help the wild salmon population and, after 15 years for this particular transgenic one and 30 years of modification studies in total, any issues would have been shown by now.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think there's a bit more here than just the precautionary principle.  As we've seen repeatedly over the last several decades, many good ideas end up being recalled, or not working out as planned, etc.  Certainly many are not as thoroughly tested, and that isn't to say that there are particular problems with the salmon either.

    Overall, the sense here is that there is no recall.  If a mistake occurs, then it may well be irrevocable.  As you mentioned about AGW ... I also agree, that regardless of how serious a problem we think it may be, I'm not convinced that we're better informed to articulate an actual solution.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    This document covers many of the points being raised here and should be examined to get a better understanding of the "down-side" concerns.

    http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AdvisoryCommittees/CommitteesMeetingMaterials/VeterinaryMedicineAdvisoryCommittee/UCM224760.pdf

    An interesting question is raised here, which isn't directly related but should also give us pause.  How will this type of technology work with other countries or companies that may not be so rigorous?  While this particular instance may be well controlled and documented, we are all too familiar with how lax things become once we begin to feel "comfortable".  Add into this mix, less than scrupulous people from other less regulated countries, and we have the recipe for some serious issues down the road.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    It's the same with nuclear power or anything, really.  We can't paralyze US science because of worries about what another country may do.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry for not being more clear.  I certainly didn't mean to imply that we need to stop science or research.  I was just pointing out a new risk that has received very little attention.  While we're all concerned about nuclear proliferation, we have little or no discussion about potentially even more serious consequences in other areas of science that are uncontrollable.

    I can think of few dangers that have the ability to have as large an impact as biology run amok.  In the past, such problems have always been confined to displaced species, however once we begin to "engineer" such species, then the problems increase in scope and impact.  Essentially I hope stories like "Day of the Triffids" remain in the realm of fiction.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    Sure, we just have to take this issue in its context.   These folks have done nothing to show they are irresponsible, the containment system is sound even though there is no indication any harm would come to wild salmon if these got out.  The inference by some that because it is the private sector there is more chance of a problem is...paranoid.  Environmental groups, universities and the government have shown plenty of willingness to create problems so it isn't just this company that would be a concern on any important issue.
    Gerhard Adam
    You're right, and my mentioning it was definitely a tangent and not meant to be used regarding the salmon issue.
    Mundus vult decipi