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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first genetically modified animal for human consumption – salmon. The FDA also ruled that when these GMO fish begin appearing in grocery stores in a couple of years, they don’t have to be labeled as such. The FDA says there’s no significant difference between the natural and engineered fish. Many consumers are angry they won’t necessarily know what they’re buying. Other opponents fear GMO salmon could have a negative impact on wild salmon. But supporters say the populations cannot mingle and the GMO version is more sustainable. Diane and her guests talk about the ongoing controversy over genetically modified salmon.
- Patty Lovera Assistant director, Food & Water Watch
- Andrew Pollack Biotechnology reporter, The New York Times
- Val Giddings Senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; president, PrometheusAB Inc.; former vice president for food and agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Genetically modified salmon are coming to American dinner tables, but you won't necessarily know it. The FDA has approved GMO salmon without requiring a GMO label. It's the first time an engineered animal has been approved for people to eat. Many environmental and food safety groups are strongly opposed, but the biotech industry and others say it is perfectly safe for humans and the environment.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me here in the studio to talk about it all, Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch and Val Giddings of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He's also a former biotech industry lobbyist. From a studio at NPR West, Andrew Pollack of the New York Times. And we'd like to hear from you think hour. I'm wondering if you care whether your salmon are engineered or natural.
MR. TOM GJELTENCall us with your comments or questions. The number is 1-800-433-8850. You can email us, email@example.com. You can share your thoughts via Facebook or Twitter. And we'd like to welcome the listeners to WTJX 93.1 FM in the U.S. Virgin Islands joining us today on "The Diane Rehm Show" for the very first time. Hello, Andrew, out there in LA.
MR. ANDREW POLLACKHello.
GJELTENAnd greetings to you, Patty and Val here in the studio.
MR. VAL GIDDINGSHey, Tom.
MS. PATTY LOVERAHi.
GJELTENAndrew, let's start with you. How do you engineer a fish?
POLLACKWell, in this particular case, they wanted the fish, the salmon, to grow to market weight faster than a typical farmed salmon. They put in a second copy of a growth hormone gene, in this case, taken from a different kind of salmon called the Chinook salmon. This particular approved salmon is an Atlantic salmon. They took that gene and then they put a sort of a genetic switch from an organism called the ocean pout that lives in the Arctic and has an antifreeze protein.
POLLACKThey took the switch that keeps that antifreeze protein functioning year around and sort of attached it to the growth hormone gene that they put into the Atlantic salmon. And this keeps that extra new copy of the growth hormone gene functioning year around, allowing the salmon to grow faster than it would otherwise.
GJELTENAnd how do they do this? Within -- they inject these genes into the eggs?
POLLACKYou know, I actually -- I should know this, but it varies by different organism. I'm more familiar with how they do it in plants, which is usually to use a bacteria that infects the plants and carries in the genetic cargo they want. They can also use a gene gun. In this case, I'm sure they, you know, did it with the embryos or eggs, but perhaps Val knows more.
GJELTENWell, I'm -- Val, I'm sorry to put you on the spot, but I'm just curious about this. This is really quite an interesting procedure.
GIDDINGSWell, this is 30-year-old technology that some scientists in Canada used and they basically take some molecular scissors and they separate the genes of interest that they want, they use molecular tape or glue to combine these and then they can insert them into, you're quite right, Andy, into the eggs of the parental individuals that they'll use for all the subsequent stock.
GIDDINGSAnd they can insert them in a variety of ways, techniques called electroporation and things like that. So there's a variety of different ways that you can do it, but as I said, this is, like, 30-year-old technology so we're very familiar with it. And, you know, we could talk about it at length. How far into the weeds do you want to go?
GJELTENWell, before we go into the weeds, we should point out, just so our listeners know that at some point in the past, you did some consulting for the company that has now developed this engineered salmon; is that correct?
GIDDINGSI had a small project with them about a decade ago, but it was unrelated to the salmon.
GJELTENOkay, all right. Well, what's the argument here for doing this? What's the argument for genetically modifying salmon?
GIDDINGSWell, the view and Food and Agriculture organization has noted that we need to get -- we need to probably triple the amount of protein, animal protein that we take from the sea over the next 30 or 40 years because of increasing demands. And fish are among the more efficient producers of animal protein around, but the problem is that wild stocks, 90 percent of them, are fished at or over capacity right now. And so there's not a lot more wild stocks that we can tap into. We've got to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our aqua culture.
GIDDINGSThere are some things that folks concerned about the environment, some worries that they have about aquaculture and farming fish, if not properly managed, this can lead to negative environmental impacts. And so the folks who developed this fish did so with a couple of things in mind. First of all, all the concerns that you have about farmed fish, generally are addressed with this fish. And in addition, they've also designed the fish so that it will reach market size in half the time on about 20 percent less feed, thereby dramatically improving the efficiency of it.
GIDDINGSAnd because you can produce these fish more quickly and efficiently, it becomes economically feasible to grow them not in sea pens, as conventionally farmed fish is today, but in contained situations in concrete tanks in warehouses, you know, in terrestrial locations so that you're a short truck drive away from you main market and you don't have to airlift the salmon as 100 percent of the 250,000 tons that we consume in the U.S. is already.
GIDDINGSYou don't have to airlift it halfway around the world from Chile or Norway. So this salmon answers all the concerns that we have about conventionally farmed salmon and does so in a way that brings benefits to the environment and consumers.
GJELTENWell, Patty Lovera, some good economic and practical reasons for doing this. Tell us what the concerns are that we should keep in mind.
LOVERASo we don't think it does answer the concerns about fish farming. We don't think it does answer concerns about how we get to, you know, everybody's goal of feeding the world in a sustainable way for a lot of reasons. The particular approval that FDA gave a few weeks ago is for very specific business plan where the eggs are raised in Canada, the fish are raised in Panama and then the product can be sent here.
LOVERAThere's reasons of that, including -- and we had to kind of pry this out of the government during the process -- other portions of the government, the Fish and Wildlife Service, you know, are concerned about doing that production here because of environmental concerns.
GJELTENWhat environmental concerns?
LOVERAA lot of the concerns are about containment. Can these get out? And so that's the question and that's a really -- that's a production model question, right? So we have a lot of concerns that the -- in terms of addressing sustainability, this particular model that was approved by the FDA isn't going to be local and it's not going to be local for the United States' consumers because they didn't get that production plan approved so we worry a lot about that -- that becoming the next move or having this thing produced in other countries with less strict regulations, that we end up with these in the open net pens in a system where we know the fish get out.
GJELTENAnd what would happen if the fish get out? What would be the concern there?
LOVERASo this is one of the many, many scenarios that we don't think the FDA did a good enough job looking at. So if these fish get out, there's a question of what percentage of them might be able to reproduce. There's a claim from the company about sterility, but it wasn't 100 percent so we're worried about that and what do these do when they're in the environment? If they are going to grow faster, are they gonna eat more? Are they gonna mess up, you know, essentially, like, an invasive species, the environment that they're in.
LOVERASo the plan that the FDA keeps talking about, what they approved calls for containment. That's a really important part of this. And if that can't be guaranteed, there's a lot of questions about what the environmental impact's gonna be.
GJELTENAndy, how did the FDA come up with this determination, that it was safe? How did they deal with these concerns that Patty has raised about containment of these engineered fish?
POLLACKWell, they went through quite a lengthy review and, of course, the two sides in this debate will argue about how thorough that review was. They first came out with their analysis back in 2010 and had a three-day advisory committee meeting of outside experts or mainly two days on this issue and looked at the FDA's analysis. The experts, you know, differed in their opinions. They challenged some of the analysis as kind of insufficient, but overall, they didn't overturn, in my opinion. I mean, there was not -- I don't recall a vote, but overall, they, you know, agreed with the FDA in general that there did not seem to be any huge concerns or things left unstudied.
GJELTENWell, Val, talk about this issue of containment. You were shaking your head when Patty was saying that this was a concern. Are you -- she said it's not 100 percent. Are you saying that it -- you know, does the industry say it's 100 percent safe, as far as a containment issue is concerned?
GIDDINGSYou know, I'm really passionate about salmon and I'm really passionate about wilderness. And the concerns Patty raised, those concerns and a whole bunch of other very good questions were raised in a citizens' petition that Food and Water Watch submitted to FDA. I'm not asking your listeners to take anything that I say for granted. I encourage them to go online and look for the report for the veterinary medical advisory committee that Andy referred to that took place in 2010 and look for the FDA's response to Food and Water Watch's petition, which is a 32-page detailed analysis in which each and every one of the objections that Patty raised has been answered.
GIDDINGSAnd the FDA points out exactly why they think these questions are without merit. To start off, these fish are to be grown in contained facilities so they'd have to learn how to pick locks and walk to get to any adjacent water supplies. You know, furthermore, these fish are sterile and they're also require food throughout the winter so if they did escape and get out, they'd die.
GJELTENVal Giddings is senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a former vice president for Food and Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He talked about the concerns raised by Food and Water Watch and we have a representative, the assistant director, Patty Lovera. She's going to join our conversation after we take a short break. Stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And the topic this hour is the introduction of genetically engineered salmon, which are going to be showing up in grocery stores in a couple of years. And one issue that we're going to get to a little bit later is the fact that you won't know that those are genetically engineered salmon because they don't have to be labeled as such.
GJELTENMy guests are Patty Lovera. She's assistant director of Food & Water Watch, which an organization that has weighed-in on this issue repeatedly. Andrew Pollack, who is the biotechnology reporter at The New York Times. He's covered this story. And Val Giddings, senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
GJELTENAnd I'm going to start out by reading some emails that give us a little sense of the variety of comments and reactions that our listeners have to this issue. Tom writes, the fact is that traditional methods of food production won't be able to feed nine billion people by 2050, according to the best estimates. We're going to have to come up with some unnatural ways to make food. With the growing middle class in India and China especially, I fully endorse exploring these methods to their full potential.
GJELTENIn the same vein, Tyler writes, I am a large-animal veterinarian in North Carolina. In reference to genetics in the food supply, we've been consuming genetically altered foods for many years. Mother Nature does not produce seedless grapes, watermelons, oranges or other seedless fruits. We've modified pork and beef to our needs for years. I look forward to trying genetically modified fish, which may proved to be more sustainable.
GJELTENOn the other hand, Stephanie writes, the proponents of GMO salmon have said these animals will not endanger wild salmon because they won't be released into the wild. The hubris and historical ignorance of this statement are staggering. History is littered with experiments that escaped the lab. It's only a matter of time before these fish get into the wild ecosystem and we have no idea what that would mean.
GJELTENSo, Patty, Val says that for these salmon to get into the wild ecosystem, they'd have to walk and pick locks, because they're going to be locked up in pens. What's your reaction? What is the scenario that you fear?
LOVERASo we have specific concerns about the way -- the production plan that the FDA approved has two facilities: one in Canada, one in Panama. So there's -- environmental groups in Canada are actually suing the Canadian government over how that facility is being regulated. We know that the facility in Panama was fined for not having permits from the government there. So we have concerns about the operations of those facilities.
LOVERAIn addition to that, this company has said they don't plan to stop here. They're talking about other markets, they're talking about other countries. We don't know what strings would be attached there. We don't know what kind of production would be there. And if, you know, if it's not fully assured that these things will not ever end up in this open net pen system where we know that fish get out, we have a lot of questions about whether it's safe.
LOVERAAnd what Val was talking about, the petition that we recently got a response to from the FDA, that was actually about a different aspect of this whole situation. We filed a petition with the FDA to say, evaluate this as a food additive, because the process they used to approve this was as a veterinary drug. So there's that whole environmental assessment piece that has to be done in any scenario about the environmental impacts of raising it. We wanted the FDA to use a different process to evaluate whether we should be eating it.
GJELTENAndy Pollack, why is it that these fish are being produced in Panama? And where, around the world, is there the greatest interest in sort of moving further in this direction?
POLLACKWell, I don't know why Panama was chosen originally. This -- the company calls this a demonstration farm. This is not really envisioned, in its current state, to be sort of a commercial production facility, although it will be able to produce, you know, a small amount of fish that the company could choose to bring to market. I think their goal initially was to sell the eggs. The eggs are raised in Canada, then they're shipped to Panama to be grown into big fish. But I think their business model, at least originally, was to sell eggs to other fish farmers who would build facilities in other markets and other locations that would presumably be bigger and would buy these eggs and then raise the salmon and market them.
POLLACKI do know, in Panama, one factor is that Panama is quite a warm country. Salmon typically prefer colder water. And this facility is up in the highlands. It is near a river, I believe, but it's pretty high up. So I think part of that idea was to limit any possible escape. Because even if the fish were to get out of this facility, they would be up in a mountain and in a warm place. They, you know, it would make it more difficult for them to survive.
GJELTENSo let's get this issue dealt with, Val, and that is the issue of escape and containment. How can industry guarantee 100 percent containment, given that some of these hatcheries are going to be in places that, you know, where regulation is, or inspection maybe not be as rigorous as we would expect it to be in this country? How can you be 100 percent sure that no escape is ever going to take place?
GIDDINGSWell, I don't think -- excuse me -- I don't think 100 percent is an appropriate criterion for any single measure. What the company has done here is devised a series -- a whole host of nested measures. Andy is correct, the facility in Panama is around 5,000 feet elevation. But in order to get to the ocean, they'd have to go down a river, through the Panama Canal, et cetera. And the water in the lower elevation is at a temperature that would kill the fish quickly. So this is an extra measure of containment that they've built into this approach.
GIDDINGSThe government of Panama was welcoming to them and made them an attractive offer to get them to put the facility there. So there are very good reasons for that. But, you know, let's step back and look at this here. Even if these fish were grown in sea pens in the ocean, they would represent at least a 98 or 99 percent increase in the level of security over what we are quite happy to accept right now. Because these fish are guaranteed by the company to be at least 95 percent sterile. But the actual data show that they are sterile 99., 98.9 percent of the time on average. So by whatever criteria you apply, this represents a major improvement over the status quo.
GJELTENOkay. Let's move on to another issue and that is the labeling of these fish as being genetically modified, genetically engineered. Andy Pollack, how did the FDA decide and why did it decide that these fish did not need to be labeled for the consumer to know what they were getting?
POLLACKWell, the FDA policy, which they say is dictated by the law -- the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act -- is that labeling is for something when there's a material change to the food. And they do not believe that in this case the genetic engineering made a material change to the food, to the salmon. This salmon is similar to other salmon.
POLLACKI should also point out that even if there were a material change, like this salmon had, you know, higher levels of healthy oils, for instance, or had some risk of causing allergies beyond what a normal salmon would have, their policy is the label would have that material change. It would have, this fish has healthier oil, or this fish has an allergy risk to it, but not the fact that it was -- that those -- that oil or that risk came from genetic modification. Use by -- under the FDA policy, use of genetic engineering, per se, is not a material change and they would label the change, not the use of the genetic engineering.
GJELTENWell, Patty Lovera, why should consumers need to know? Why would they want to know that the fish is genetically modified? Is it because of their concern for the environment and these sort of larger questions of whether genetically modified fish could escape? Or, you know, would you quarrel with this idea that actually, from a material point of view, the fish that they are eating -- whether it's genetically engineered or not -- is no different from natural fish?
LOVERAWe do have to quarrel with that, in part because of the process FDA used to approve this. So we were very unhappy when we finally got information out of FDA that drug-approval process is not the most transparent process in the world. When we finally got things out, we have a lot of questions about the statistical power and sample size and kind of the rigor of what was done, to look at this as a food. So that leaves a lot of questions open about whether it is materially different or not. And to back up to the bigger picture question, this is a bigger, bigger, very raging policy debate we're having right now about labeling foods that come from genetic engineering.
LOVERAAnd people have all different kinds of reasons for wanting to know. Some people don't want to know. Some people might like to know and then go look for it. What happens with peoples' choices when they get this information is up to them. But we think that providing that information is good public policy. One of the many reasons people might want to know is that we have no way to evaluate any negative health effects from eating these foods because we don't track where they go because we don't tell people they're eating them. So there's a long list of reasons we're having a very public, nationwide debate about labeling these foods right now, including in Congress this week.
LOVERASo there's a long history that this particular approval is fitting into. And FDA maintained what we think is a failed policy with this decision.
GJELTENWell, what about other GMO foods? I mean we had the veterinarian write in and point out that seedless fruits are genetically modified. I believe corn and soy is genetically modified. Are all of those foods labeled? And should they be labeled as GMO foods?
LOVERASo that's the debate that we're having. So at this point, you know, the vast majority of corn, soy, the majority of canola, cotton, there's -- a lot of commodity crops are genetically engineered. What we end up bickering about is, you know, what is that line of genetic engineering? And so what we say and what a lot of international trade bodies say is that when you do techniques that couldn't have been done kind of traditionally with selective breeding.
LOVERAAnd so altering foods for our purposes, because we like a trait, has been happening for the whole time we've had agriculture. Going in and changing genetic material, that's the distinction. So right now, those foods are not labeled. The FDA policy has been not to require it. And some states are starting to pass legislation. And that's becoming a federal issue about whether states can do that.
GJELTENWell, Val Giddings, why not label it? I mean, in the interest of transparency, why not let consumers know what they're buying?
GIDDINGSWell, Patty has just said that the reason that folks -- some folks want labels is because, if there's been a genetic change, they want to know about it. But the fact of the matter is that applying that criterion, every single food that exists on the planet has been genetically modified. This is clear and unambiguous. And the argument that, you know, these changes that they're concerned about are changes you don't find in nature. Look, genetic engineers learned how to do these techniques by finding them in nature, where they are ubiquitous, where they've been responsible for genetic modification to every living thing on the planet.
GIDDINGSAs far as, you know, labels per se, you know, people want everything -- if I ask people, do you want X, Y, or Z on a label, they will always say yes. We always want information on labels. The challenge the FDA faces is, how do you satisfy everybody's desire for information on a label with the fact that a label is fairly limited real estate. And so FDA has decided that the things that they will require to be on a label will be limited to things that are relevant to the health, safety and nutritional aspects of the food. And that that information must be presented in a way that is to the consumer accurate, informative and not misleading.
GIDDINGSThere are opportunities through which we can put information on a label outside of that health, safety and nutrition standard, as long as it's accurate, informative and not misleading. And, you know, these are tried and true. For example, kosher labels and so forth. You know, but these are voluntary labels. They can't be done in a way that's misleading. And the industry has responded here. There are now -- there are USDA organic label which answers this question. There is the non-GMO certifying process which answers this question. There at least eight different cell phone apps that you can download to scan a barcode in the grocery store here. GMA just rolled a new QrCode last week to address these issues.
GIDDINGSYou know, the market has responded here. This is a need that has been met.
GJELTENVal Giddings is a former lobbyist for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I want to remind you, our number is 800-433-8850, for all of you who have interest in this issue of genetically modified food. Andy Pollack, do you have a theory about why this industry -- the biotech industry -- has pushed so hard against labeling of GMO products?
POLLACKWell, I think there is a feeling in certain parts of the industry that a label like that would be the equivalent of sort of a skull and crossbones. Not that this would, you know, not that these foods...
GJELTENWould scare people is what you're saying.
POLLACKIt would scare people and that people would just stay away from food that has this label. And to some extent, not everyone believes that. But also some people who are in favor of labeling believe that. And you can see statements from some of these advocates saying, you know, the best thing we could do to drive genetically modified food out of the market is to put a label on it. So I sometimes ironically say, this is the one thing that both sides in this polarized issue sort of agree on. And if you look overseas, you know, there are far fewer genetically modified foods on sale. And I'm sure that part of that is because they are required to be labeled.
GJELTENNow, Andy, these -- this fish would not have to be labeled. Nevertheless, I understand that there are already a number of big grocery chains that have said that they don't intend to carry this fish. How significant is that? Which are these chains that are already saying that they're not going to sell genetically modified salmon?
POLLACKWell, this was a campaign by the people opposed to the salmon. I don't know if Patty's group was part of it. Friends of the Earth was and some others. You know, they wrote to these retailers and got letters of, you know, various language saying, you know, we have no intention to sell these fish. I believe this includes Kroger, which is the largest sort of stand-alone, you know, non-Wal-Mart type of supermarket. I think Safeway is there. Obviously, whole foods, and there are...
POLLACKCostco, I'm not sure. I think they've been trying to get Costco.
GJELTENWell, both Patty and Val are shaking their heads saying -- nodding their heads, saying yes, yes, Costco.
POLLACKOkay, Costco, Target maybe, I think, Trader Joe. You know, there's a bunch.
GJELTENVal, you wanted to jump in.
GIDDINGSWell, there's less here than meets the eye. It's true that some of these folks have said this in written or verbal statements. But, you know, if you look exactly at what they've said, a lot of them have said, you know, we have no plans at present to change our purchasing. This fish isn't going to be available for years. You know, let's talk about this when it's actually available.
GJELTENPatty, did your group weigh in on this?
LOVERAWe did. So, I mean, we don't -- we didn't think it should have been approved. Lots of groups worked to stop that. But this is where we are now. So we're going to take it to the market, which is what the biotech industry keeps saying is going to decide, so will help people take it to the marketplace.
GJELTENAnd was your group in on writing that letter to these organization -- these stores?
GJELTENMm-hmm. Patty Lovera, she's the assistant director of Food and Water Watch. and that group has been very active in weighing in on this issue of genetically modified salmon. We're going to take a short break here. My other guests are Andrew Pollack, who's been covering this issue for The New York Times, and Val Giddings, he's senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We're going to take a break. Our number, remember, is 1-800-433-8850. And when we come back, we're going to go to the phones. I'm Tom Gjelten, stay listening.
GJELTENAnd welcome back, excuse me. I'm Tom Gjelten with NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. We're talking about genetically modified salmon and whether they should be labeled as such and what questions you might have when they are -- when they show up in stores in a couple of years. My guests are Patty Lovera, who is assistant director of Food and Water Watch, Andy Pollack, who is the biotechnology reporter for The New York Times, and Val Giddings, he's a geneticist, he's got a Ph.D. in genetics, and he's a senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
GJELTENAnd I'll tell you what. I'm not going to ask any more questions on this show because you all have such thoughtful and interesting questions. I'm going to really turn it over to our listeners now. A couple of questions for you first, Val. Stan says, this is about gene transfer, okay, since you're a geneticist, I'm going to let you answer these. Stan says, I expect the gene bits to enter the environment through refuse. It is not troubling. If you have a background in biotech, you would not be troubled. You're going to explain why you would not be troubled if you had a background in genetics about gene bits entering the environment.
GJELTENAnother question from Charles, he says, it's not necessary for the entire fish to escape. Gene transfer can happen in other ways. The genes can escape via insects, predators, and of course humans who want to steal them. Have these issues been looked into? So deal with these questions about gene transfer here and what the dangers, if any, there are or what the reassurances that are relevant here are.
GIDDINGSWell, if fragments of the genes involved here were to find their way into nature through the animal waste from the facility or something like that, what they would find is that nature is already full of these genes, carried by Chinook salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest and the fish in the Atlantic. And, you know, one thing we know very clearly is that DNA is DNA. But DNA fragments don't encode for entire proteins.
GIDDINGSThe only conceivable danger that you -- I can't think of any danger that would be afforded by DNA fragments. DNA is everywhere. It is the fundamental molecule of life. We eat it, you know, by the grams in every meal that we have. You know, this is not a concern. What is a potential concern is what do these genes do, and where do they do it, and those questions have been exhaustively considered over more than two decades by FDA.
GIDDINGSAnd once again I'd encourage your readers to go online and Google both the FDA's documents for the 2010 meeting, the decision documents associated with this decision that they made public and their response to Food & Water Watch's petition. These questions have all been answered at great length.
GJELTENOkay. Andy Pollack, I'm going to let you answer Martin, who says the -- so far your whole show has been about the environment. I am concerned about the taste of these fish. On a recent trip to Alaska, I was told there are several species, and some are much more flavorful than others. If this particular farmed salmon is anything like pond-raised catfish, which has very little taste, I would not be very interested. What do you know? What can you tell us about the taste of genetically modified salmon?
POLLACKWell, I haven't eaten it. I think the company has said, you know, that the taste is the same as Atlantic-farmed salmon that we commonly eat now. Pretty much all the salmon, Atlantic salmon especially, that we eat in restaurants is from farms. I don't know -- we paid so much attention to the environmental and health issues that I don't actually recall how much of a taste test the company has done, but they seem confident that the taste is fine.
GJELTENI know, Patty, when I buy fish, when I buy salmon, if I have a choice between wild salmon and farmed salmon, my instinct is to go for the wild salmon, and I'm thinking that it tastes better. Is that right?
LOVERAWell, I mean, we give people the advice to go for wild salmon for a lot of reasons, and I know a lot of Alaskan fisherman would say it tastes better. You know, the environmental performance of salmon farms in particular, without this new addition of genetically engineered salmon, is absolutely controversial, and it should be -- there's, you know, great environmental impact. So there's a lot of folks who look for wild salmon already for that reason.
LOVERAAnd I think, you know, there's been a lot of controversy about, you know, appearance, color and taste and the difference between those two systems.
GJELTENVery quickly, Val?
GIDDINGSThe company has done blind taste tests in which their salmon performs very well. The Washington Post did some taste tests on salmon a couple years ago, and they found that universally all their tasters agreed that the best tasting salmon was frozen farmed Atlantic salmon.
GJELTENOkay. Let's go to David, (PH) who is on the line from Little Rock, Arkansas. Hello, David, thanks for calling the Diane Rehm Show.
DAVIDHi thanks. There's a very good precedent for this situation in North America. You can Google White Amur, A-M-U-R, or Israeli carp, and see what happens when you try to have sterile fish. They are bred to be triploid. I guess they're already genetically modified. They're called triploid carp. Sorry, when they breed, their offspring are sterile. And it's easy to attain 100 percent sterility of these fish through a very simple cellular analysis, very inexpensive and quick.
DAVIDAnd every ship, every fish they ship all over the world is sterile. However, we had a flood here in Arkansas a few years ago. Some of the brood stock escaped. They didn't need a pick on the lock. They didn't have to walk. They got out, and now they are a major problem for our North American waterways all the way up to Lake Michigan, where they're trying to keep them out of the Great Lakes before they become an absolute disaster.
GJELTENWell, wait a second, if they're sterile, how did that happen?
DAVIDThe brook stock escaped. Also the -- not 100 percent of the offspring are sterile. The -- they do an analysis of the material of each fish to make sure that they have the correct sterile chromosome makeup before they can ship them. The ones that are not sterile are kept for either brood stock, or they're destroyed.
GJELTENIf the brood stock is sterile, how do they even have offspring?
GIDDINGSThe brood stock is not sterile.
DAVIDNo, the brood stock is not sterile. But they are bred so that -- they are modified such that when they breed, they carry on too many chromosomes to their offspring, and then the offspring are sterile because their sperm or eggs are not able to fertilize each other. They have, like they're triploid instead of diploid or haploid like they're supposed to be.
GJELTENPatty do you -- are you familiar with this story of the Israeli carp and what lessons it might have here?
LOVERAI wasn't familiar with this particular story, but it's an example of what we're concerned about. So, you know, percentage, small percentages that aren't sterile of the offspring, accidents that happen where, you know, the containment doesn't work. I mean, this is kind of a real-life example of the kind of concerns we're raising, and the assurances we don't think are in this production plan and future production plans the company might pursue.
GIDDINGSThese concerns are not relevant to the salmon. The carp is a known invasive colonizing species. It is a freshwater species. Salmon are anadromous. They travel between fresh and salt water. And these salmon in particular have the constant on switch for requiring food throughout the year, which isn't there in the winter, so they would die, as I said, the first winter they encountered. I'm very familiar with that carp situation and watched it very closely for many years, and in fact the carp that we're concerned about getting into Lake Michigan and the relevant watersheds is an entirely different species. Those two issues are not, in fact, related.
GIDDINGSWhat the caller was referring to was a situation where a flood did result in the escape of some research transgenic carp from an Auburn University facility, and we know about that, and that did create a problem but, you know, for reasons that are completely inapplicable to the salmon.
GJELTENOkay, let's go now to Dan, who is on the line from Moody, Missouri. Hello, Dan, thanks for calling the Diane Rehm Show.
DANGood morning, Tom and panel members. My question is, will salmon raised in Panama contain omega-3 fatty acid levels comparable to salmon raised in their natural cold-water environment? And the reason I'm concerned about that is take tilapia for instance, which is a warm-water fish and has almost no omega-3 fatty acids, and I believe this is generally true of warm-water fishes, for instances the very popular Asian catfish.
DANSo if indeed these fish don't have normal levels of omega-3 fatty acids that the other salmon have, won't that significantly diminish their value as a healthy food?
GJELTENWell, Andy Pollack, you said before that the FDA has satisfied itself that there would be no material difference between the genetically modified salmon and natural salmon. Do you know whether the FDA got into this issue of what levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in both types of fish?
POLLACKThey did definitely get into that issue, and I believe they concluded -- you know, I believe the critics say that there is some, you know, somewhat less of the omega-3s in the genetically engineered salmon, if I'm -- again I'd have to go look at the records. They analyzed so much. My recollection is they -- you know, the FDA decided there was not, you know, a significant or material difference.
POLLACKI also, I don't know exactly what the temperature of the water is. Just because it's a warm-water, you know, it's a warm country does not mean that the salmon are being raised in warm water, but...
GJELTENWell, in fact you said that they were raised at a higher elevation to get a colder environment.
POLLACKRight, it's at a high elevation.
GIDDINGSThe temperature of the water is the same in Panama as it is in Prince Edward Island. What determines the level of omega-3 fatty acids is what the fish eat. The level of omega-3 fatty acids in salmon varies widely both in natural populations and in fish-farmed populations. It depends on what they eat. And FDA found that the levels from the AquAdvantage salmon are comparable to those well within the range of what you find in wild populations naturally.
LOVERASo this was one of the things that we were asking about when we tried to get FDA to look at this as a food additive. It would've triggered different testing, different requirements than evaluating it as a veterinary drug. And so when they had that advisory council, when we were only looking at summaries because that's the drug process, we were concerned that these studies, which come from the company, were small, and this is the thing they should have looked more at because people look, especially to salmon, as a very nutritious food for very specific characteristics, and we're not clear that the FDA answered those questions.
GIDDINGSTom, Patty's mischaracterized the FDA's legal review process here. The law was revised by Congress in 1968 to make sure that the food and drug -- new animal drug application incorporated the same types of questions that are covered in a food additive petition of the sort that Food & Water Watch requested. So this question is one that FDA dismissed as being without merit.
GJELTENVery quickly reaction?
LOVERAThis technology didn't exist in 1968. You need a different set of rules to look at this. Food additive was just one option. We're having a bigger conversation about the entire federal framework for looking at these foods because it's not currently working.
GJELTENOkay, that's a topic for another show. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go now to Jeff, who is on the line from Indiana. Hello, Jeff, thanks for calling.
JEFFYes, good morning, everybody, and our family has been in the tank farm or the business of growing fish within our farms, and recently we just got through construction of 27 new units. And we went specifically after the salmon business. And we didn't know what we were getting into, to tell you the truth. And we went with all the criteria of security, overlapped ceilings with plastic domes and electrified fences. And these tanks, just to give you an idea, are 150 feet wide, a quarter of a mile long.
GJELTENSo you're talking here, you're talking, Jeff, about -- you're not just talking about regularly farmed salmon, you're talking about genetically -- producing genetically engineered salmon is what you're talking about.
JEFFI am talking about the very same salmon that we're discussing here.
JEFFAnd the reason we looked at it, and we are approved to go ahead in about 24 months to start growing them, in our different hatcheries is we will be required to ship them outside of the United States. But our biggest problem, and the problem that we've had ongoing for the last five years, is the GMO food that we are putting into our tanks. And we've had quite a problem with tank -- I want to keep it simple. We get liming up of the tanks, tremendous amount of lime into the fish products because of the GMO grains because we have no way of knowing what kind of quality of GMO grains that we're getting. Usually it's the bottom of the barrel, soybeans, corn and so forth.
GJELTENOkay, let's just -- let's just kind of hold that conversation, Jeff. Patty, to what extent are GMO foods -- I mean, what Jeff raised here is an interesting question. To what extent are GMO products actually constituting the food for these GMO salmon?
LOVERAWe're curious to hear that. You know, salmon in the wild aren't eating corn and soybeans, right.
LOVERASo the fish farming industry in general is trying to figure out how to get fish to eat, all types of fish, to eat more grains because one of the critiques of the fish-farming system is that you catch wild fish to turn them into food for farmed fish sometimes with certain species resulting in a loss of protein, the net loss of protein, you get less than a pound out than what you put in. That's one of the critiques of fish farming. They're trying to look to plant foods to solve that.
LOVERASo it's yet another question about what the nutritional content of those fish coming out is going to be. It depends on what they're eating. So this is a great experiment in aquaculture at this point, and the big commodity crop companies, the Cargills of the world, are very interested in fish farms as a place to sell corn and soy.
GJELTENWell, is there any difference between farmed salmon that are not genetically engineered and genetically engineered salmon in terms of how they are raised aside from the security concerns that we've been talking about but in terms of how they are fed?
LOVERAI mean, the companies that do it are going to figure out what works for them.
GJELTENYou're shaking your head, Val.
GIDDINGSThere's no difference. There is a lot of work being done to improve fish feed, as Patty correctly points out, because what you feed the fish determines the level of, among other things, omega-3 fatty acids they have. And so one of the things that biotechnologists have tried to do to address this concern is produce soybeans which themselves contain a high level of omega-3 fatty acids so that they are a better food for fish, so they will obviate the requirement we've seen hitherto to use other fish, you know, to feed the salmon.
GIDDINGSSo this is a technical solution that has been developed, and we can look for that to be deployed in the near future, I think.
GJELTENAndy Pollack, to what extent, I'm going to let you have the last word here, to what extent are we really having a discussion today really about the future of food? I mean are these issues, these questions that we're discussing today, are these the questions that we're going to be dealing with for years to come now?
POLLACKIn some form, I think yes because we're going to be modifying things going forward. I actually think that this fish, as Val pointed out, was technology from a couple of decades ago, I think this form of genetic engineering might actually give way to new methods, which are known as gene editing. There's been a whole zoo of type of animals that are being now -- suddenly it's become much easier to change animals genetically using these new techniques, one of which is -- people might have heard of known as CRISPR/Cas9.
POLLACKThere's concern about using that to edit the human genome, as well, but for animals there's all sorts of disease-resistant and super-muscled animals being created, and there's a question of, you know, how these things will be regulated. But...
GJELTENWell, I think we're going to have to leave it there. Andy Pollack is biotechnology reporter for The New York Times. I've also been joined by Patty Lovera from Food & Water Watch and Val Giddings, a senior fellow for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Thanks to all of you.
GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for listening.
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