Tag Archives: GMOs

Genetically modified salmon receives FDA approval

The FDA has approved a fish genetically engineered to develop more rapidly than non-genetically engineered salmon, named the AquAdvantage Salmon. It’s the first GMO animal approved for human consumption in the United States.

The AquAdvantage salmon develops twice as fast as non-GM Atlantic salmon, due to the over-expression of a growth hormone. AquaBounty Technologies, the organization that made the fish, has been attempting to get it through approval for just about 20 years. The fish is an Atlantic salmon which has been genetically modified to incorporate genes from various fish, including a growth hormone gene and the promoter of an antifreeze gene.

Genetically modified salmon is now FDA approved. Graphic by Katie Gibson
Genetically modified salmon is now FDA approved. Graphic by Katie Gibson

In a statement released November 20th by AquaBounty’s CEO Ron Stotish, he said, “AquAdvantage Salmon is a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats. Using land-based aquaculture systems, this rich source of protein and other nutrients can be farmed close to major consumer markets in a more sustainable manner.”

The FDA has only agreed to AquaBounty’s present breeding and growing setup, where fish are bred in Canada on Prince Edward Island, and sterilized eggs are shipped to the highlands of Panama to be developed to market size. On the off-chance that the product takes off and the organization needs to add additional facilities, each of these would need to get approved separately. “It’s not clear that it would be a simple process by any means,” Smith says.

With the current administrative fight behind it, AquaBounty still has to win over grocery stores and customers careful about GM products. “It’s difficult to disentangle consumer’s attitudes from their understanding of the technology,” Smith says, “there are a lot of politics of [GM organisms] that might inform people’s decision-making that might not have anything to do whatsoever with the technology.”

What’s more, in light of the fact that the new product can be labeled as farmed Atlantic salmon without mention of the genetic modification, shoppers may not know they’re eating it unless sellers explicitly decline to purchase it, Smith says. Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have stated that they weren’t going to sell, or buy, the fish.

Bill Nye and GMOs

For many of us who grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy as our mentor and guide through the scientific world, he remains an influential and nearly faultless voice of reason. Whether or not you agree with all his opinions, his more recent capacity in the public eye as an activist for climate change and evolution has had him in the spotlight once again.

In Nye’s Nov. 2014 book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation,  he devoted a chapter to his opinions on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the relatively recent movement towards their domination of our foods. An outlier in the scientific community, he reiterated his skepticism towards GMOs during a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything):

Bill Nye as prophet. Graphic by Katie Gibson
Bill Nye as prophet. Graphic by Katie Gibson

“I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem. Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better. So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.”

Therefore, it has struck many by surprise that in February Nye stated in a video backstage on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that he is now “in love” with GMOs.

Some have expressed anger or have criticized Nye’s sudden change of heart, citing theories of bribes or threats. However, the great thing about science is that you are allowed — encouraged, really — to change or strengthen your opinion with every new piece of evidence you receive.

Nye declares that after visiting Monsanto (a corporation that has become all but synonymous with GMOs) and working closely with the scientists there to learn about the work being done with GMOs and food, he has found evidence for his about-face. Details of this are expected to be revealed further in his revised book (to be released next fall).

Now, although Nye says his opinion on GMOs has changed and indicates that they’re safe for human consumption, he still may be skeptical about the impact on ecosystems where GMOs have been introduced.

The argument for GMOs is that they allow more food, potentially better food, to be cultivated by farmers more easily. Scientists simply pick and choose the traits which food evolves with instead of waiting for natural selection to take its course — speeding the process up dramatically. And while this unnatural evolution makes many uncomfortable — including Nye until recently — there’s no current evidence that it’s any more dangerous than waiting a few hundred years for nature to take its course. Although it isn’t mandatory for GMOs to be tested for human health risks, all those currently on our shelves have volunteered to undergo review.

We may never see the day when we have a full understanding of the effects of GMOs, but at least we have the capacity, as an intelligent species, to seek out information and form our own opinions.

American scientists v. the rest of us

Traditionally, the relationship between our nation’s scientists and the rest of us has been somewhat distant. It’s hard to accept what you don’t understand without a serious education — even scientists have to accept findings outside their individual fields that they may not quite comprehend. However, some disturbing trends have caused concern over the nature of disparities between these parties.

Scientists are annoyed with the public. Graphic from Totally Off Beat
Scientists are annoyed with the public. Graphic from Totally Off Beat

A recent set of surveys by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found that scientists and the public have widely different views about scientific issues. Their research shows that the scientists surveyed tended to have a more positive opinion of many newer technologies than the general public.

While it’s been clear to many that these disparities exist (such as the ongoing debate on global climate change), the most troubling result of these surveys is that they show a small decline in positive views about science. In a study done in 2009, 83% of Americans felt that science made life better, whereas the numbers from 2014 show that only 79% of Americans share this view.

Major differences in the views of scientists surveyed and the public include GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), pesticides, and fracking. Most scientists (88%) said they viewed GMO foods as safe, but only 37% of their fellow Americans said they felt the same. Similarly, 68% of scientists stated that pesticides are safe, but only about a fourth (28%, to be exact) of the US public said they shared the belief. And 39% of the American public said they are for fracking, whereas only 31% of the surveyed scientists agreed.

AAAS CEO Alan Leshner responded to these poll results, claiming “such disparity is alarming because it ultimately affects both science policy and scientific progress.”

The economy, policies on natural resources, and our own self-care are only a few of the areas that scientific innovations make a huge impact on our nation. Therefore, the public opinion and accessible communications between the public and scientists are a major concern for all Americans. This set of surveys simply underscores the necessity of improving communications on both scientific work and the motivations behind it.

Clearly, there’s  a need to ensure that science maintains and builds its place in our society through having members of the scientific community engage with the public in ways that allow them to hear from fellow citizens. Unfortunately, oftentimes the loudest voices of disagreement from those sharing opinions with our nation’s scientists seem to be aggressive, labeling people as deniers or irrational.

Hopefully, with these new figures to motivate, those like curator of IFLScience Elise Andrew will continue trying to make scientific innovations and understanding more accessible and fun to engage in, as well as motivating others to further the effort.