DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
Friday, March 8, 2002
©2002 Associated Press
(03-08) 01:34 PST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) --
In the latest battle over genetically modified food, federal regulators must decide if fish given super-growth genes -- Frankenfish, as critics call it -- is safe for the dinner table.
A Food and Drug Administration ruling on the
modified Atlantic salmon is expected to
influence the fate of dozens of other animals that could be genetically engineered, such as
cows, chickens and pigs.
The genetic tinkering is aimed at faster stocking
of supermarket meat counters and dairy
cases. The engineered salmon, raised by Waltham, Mass.-based Aqua Bounty Farms Inc.,
grow to market size twice as fast as their unmodified cousins.
Supporters say these salmon
would sell for less in supermarkets, while easing pressure on
wild or hatchery-raised fish.
But opponents fear the engineered
fish will hasten the demise of natural species if allowed to
crossbreed. They also argue that human health risks have not been thoroughly studied.
While work on transplanting fish genes has been under
way for about 15 years, the FDA
application and the efforts of at least two states to make their own decisions about modified
fish have brought the debate to a head.
The FDA has given no indication of when it may rule,
Aqua Bounty said it expects a
decision by 2004. The company has been seeking approval since 1996.
In the meantime, one state has already permitted
farming of genetically modified fish in
ponds or lakes that don't connect to other waterways. Maryland passed the law last year,
although gene-altered fish in the United States are currently raised only in tanks.
California, meanwhile, is considering outlawing modified
fish. A bill pending in the state
Senate would ban the import, possession or release of the fish anywhere in the state.
Another pending bill would simply require supermarkets to label genetically modified fish.
Researchers are tinkering with other breeds. English
scientists are working on tilapia, while
Canadian researchers are concentrating on Chinook salmon. Transgenic tilapia are being
considered for approval by Cuba, and genetically altered carp by China.
New Zealand researchers
already developed salmon they said might reach 550 pounds, but
halted the project because of public objections.
Some researchers say fast-growing fish could become
a new staple in the developing world
-- providing an ample and inexpensive food supply.
But opponents say the escape of genetically engineered
fish could drive wild populations to
extinction, citing a Purdue University study showing that the "superfish" could have a
competitive advantage over native fish for food, mates and habitat.
The Purdue study tracked tiny Japanese fish called
medaka that were altered with a growth
gene from Atlantic salmon. Environmental research so far shows the opposite may be true
for salmon themselves, or for catfish, researchers said.
Gene-altered Atlantic salmon swim slower, reproduce
poorly, use more oxygen and take
more risks for food than their wild cousins, said Aqua Bounty vice president Joseph
McGonigle and Auburn University fisheries researcher Rex Dunham.
Genetically engineered catfish have about a 10 percent
lower survival rate if they're forced
to compete with native fish, said Dunham.
"They're simply not adapted to life in the wild," McGonigle said.
But environmentalists argue the impact of genetically
modified species can be hard to predict
and difficult to control -- in Mexico, for example, just a few years of unlabeled U.S. imports
of modified corn wiped out natural varieties of the 4,000-year-old crop.
Already, more than half the salmon sold in the United
States is farm-raised. Fish farming is a
$40-million-a-year business in Washington state, where farmers raise about 10 million
pounds annually. That's dwarfed by British Columbia, where farmers annually produce 80
million pounds of Atlantic salmon.
Naturally grown Atlantic salmon have escaped there
from the ocean pens where they are
raised. The fish are an ocean away from their normal breeding grounds, and biologists say
interbreeding with Pacific salmon is unlikely.
However, Canadian biologists have found young Atlantic
salmon in two streams on
Vancouver Island, indicating that the farm-raised fish have been able to reproduce.
McGonigle said Aqua Bounty raises the modified fish
in tanks and could not escape into
local waterways. Regardless, researchers are attempting to head off the environmental
debate by promising to use only sterilized fish that couldn't reproduce if they escape.