"Don't play with your food." Heard by children at dinner tables around the world, this familiar reproach is taking on a new meaning in the age of genetically modified (GM) foods. Formed by insertion of a donor organism's genes, the recipient organism is called a "transgenic" or a GMO (genetically modified organism).
In the U.S., a dozen transgenic plants (plus several transgenic bacteria and fungi) have already been approved for commercial production by the food industry. An aquaculture company called Aqua Bounty Farms has produced the very first transgenic animal intended for human consumption: Atlantic salmon with two donor genes from other fish. The donated genes keep the transgenic salmon growing year-round, instead of taking a winter break, so they reach adult size ten to thirty times faster than normal.
Faster growing salmon might seem like a food windfall in a world where many people are suffering from starvation or malnutrition (especially protein deprivation). But the public, as well as many scientists, have found some reasons to question whether these salmon should be grown at all.
Two scientists at Purdue University (Muir and Howard, 1999) published the results of a study investigating the effects of transgenic fish on wild populations of the same species. Using a fish called the Japanese medaka, they found that just sixty transgenic fish could drive a population of sixty thousand wild fish extinct in only forty generations. While it's not clear whether the same would happen with salmon, the study has stimulated protests against FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval of Aqua Bounty's new fish.
In addition, transgenic organisms can have adverse health effects on consumers, such as unexpected allergic reactions. Since labeling of transgenic foods as such is not required in the U.S., consumers have no way of knowing whether they're eating genetically modified foods or not. In addition, transgenic animals fall through a bizarre loophole in FDA regulations that allows them to be categorized (and therefore tested) as veterinary drugs, not food for humans.
With these two primary concerns in mind, a public interest group called the Center for Food Safety registered a formal complaint with the FDA in October 2001, hoping to block approval of Aqua Bounty's salmon (and any future transgenic animals). They call for a safer, slower approach including thorough ecological and health risk testing, plus clear labeling so consumers can decide for themselves whether to eat transgenic animals or not. With more than three dozen transgenic animals already in development, the FDA's decision about Aqua Bounty salmon will clearly set an important precedent for what might end up on your dinner table in the very near future.