You’ll have the pleasure of eating a genetically modified Atlantic salmon soon. And it’s likely that you won’t even know it.
The New York Times reports that AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, Massachusetts has taken five of the seven steps required for FDA approval. For this and other GMO animals intended for human consumption, including the enviropig whose waste is low in phosphorus, the FDA is using a process similar to that for pharmaceuticals. While that process is underway, the public is kept entirely in the dark—confidential and proprietary information, you see. Only after finishing the seven steps will the data be made available during a limited and highly controlled review and comment period.
For approval, the FDA must determine that these GMO salmon are nutritionally the same as wild salmon and that they pose no adverse health or environmental risks. We all know what a bang-up job the FDA does in that regard. So you’ll excuse me if I’m not reassured.
In an ironic twist, should the FDA approve these GMO salmon, those very criteria will prevent labeling the salmon as GMO. That’s because it’s the policy of the FDA to require labeling only when a new product is nutritionally different from a comparable product. So if the FDA declares GMO salmon to be nutritionally indistinguishable from wild salmon, no label is required. Mention is made of a voluntary labeling program. Ha ha.
The genetic changes AquaBounty made to its salmon are intended to shorten the salmon’s growth period. Ordinarily, it takes three years for an Atlantic salmon to reach maturity. The rate is affected by cold and warm cycles in the ocean: cold means slower growth. By introducing DNA from a distantly related fish whose growth isn’t affected by cold, the AquaBounty fish can grow, baby, grow in half the time.
As I’ve commented before, what business-based geneticists think they know is outdated. What they think is that a gene for a trait like growth consists of a chunk of DNA that produces a protein that does some bit of biological work. In fact, it’s much more complicated and complex and frankly mysterious than that. Which isn’t to say that it’s incomprehensible—lots of money and talent is being thrown at trying to figure all this out. It is to say that scientists who are honest about how genomes work are not only cautious but precautious about splicing bits from one creature’s DNA into another’s. Not only is there concern about how the new bits will actually work, there’s also a good deal of concern about how newly fashioned genomes will respond to their environment—not only the environments business-based geneticists intended them for but any environment they’ll inhabit.
Let me give you an example. One of the most widely used GMO foods is Bt corn. This is corn that has had a bit of DNA from a bacteria spliced into the corn genome. That bit of DNA produces a natural insectcide that makes corn resistant to insect attacks. Instead of “natural insecticide,” let me use another word: toxin. For that is what it is. Now consider this. Bacteria exchange bits DNA. It’s one of the ways in which they adapt. The bacteria in your gut do it. So what happens when a food containing bacterial DNA that produces a toxin comes in contact with your gut flora? Is DNA exchanged? Will your gut flora produce a toxin?
No one knows. By that I mean no research has been funded to ask and answer that and many other questions surrounding GMO foods.
So wouldn’t you like to know whether what you’re eating is GMO? You might be one of those people who believe that “they” wouldn’t let someone sell a food if it wasn’t safe. “They” can’t do that. Can they?
Well, yes they can. And they will. And it’s likely that you won’t even know it. Over the lips, over the gums, look out body, here it comes.
In the introduction to his book Genetic Roulette, Jeffrey Smith tells the story of a young scientist who was inspired by Monsanto’s CEO to join Monsanto in feeding the world. During his company orientation the young scientist gushed about this to a Vice President who quickly disabused him. Nobody really understood what the CEO was talking about, he was told. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with Monsanto’s actual mission, which is to make money. The young scientist eventually left after long bouts with fellow scientists who were simply not interested in the health and environmental effects that concerned him.
There’s a difference between ignorant and stupid. Ignorant is not knowing something. Ordinarily, when you’re ignorant you try to learn about that of which you are ignorant. In this respect, scientists are some of our most important ignorant people and learners. It’s their job to know that they’re ignorant and learn what they need to learn.
On the other hand, stupid is the inability to learn. What you hope is that someone who’s stupid is ignorant in a way that, when they get the right information, stop being stupid. But some people are just plain stupid. Often, they have lots of money and a really swell product that they want you to buy. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
More than ever, the onslaught of GMO foods, of the emerging GMOcracy, begs for us to attend to what we eat and where it comes from. And I hope I don’t need to point out that a food certified as organic does not guarantee that some or all of it comes from genetically modified organisms. But in addition to being a smart eater, resistance to the GMOcracy demands that each of us support organizations and scientists who are resisting this onslought of food stupid.