In the DARK

Written by Lydia Benedict.

While salmon is not likely on your mind this holiday season—it should be. Just weeks ago, the FDA approved genetically engineered (GE) salmon, the first altered animal, for human consumption. Up to this point, the only genetically modified organisms (GMOs) consumed by Americans were plants including corn, soy, and sugar. With the approval of the GM salmon introduced by the company AquaBounty comes the future likelihood of more altered animals in our food system.

This GM salmon, known as AquaAdvantage salmon, is an Atlantic salmon modified with a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout (an eel-like creature) that keeps the transplanted gene continuously active. Since conventionally farmed salmon take anywhere from 28 to 36 months to reach market weight, the transplanted growth hormone gene combined with the genetic switch is key to making the AquaAdvantage salmon reach their market weight in as little as 18 -20 months. In other words, the genetically engineered salmon can reach market weight in as little as half the time.

Ocean PoutOcean Pout

While it will take a couple of years before this GM salmon reaches the market, the debate over its safety continues. Concerns include food safety as well as the possibility of some engineered salmon escaping into the wild where they could interbreed and outcompete their wild counterparts. AquaBounty says this is very unlikely because the AquaAdvantage salmon raised for food are all female and sterile.

GM salmon compared to conventionally farmed salmonGM salmon compared to conventionally farmed salmon

Regarding these concerns, the Washington Post said, “Safety can’t be proved (we can only infer it from absence of harm so far), and any containment system can fail.” But the Post also makes the point that perhaps the benefits of GM fish outweigh the risks.

For example, our oceans are already overfished. William Muir, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, said, “[T]he current practice of using wild caught salmon as a food source is not sustainable…This development provides a safe and sustainable alternative.” Up to this point, the answer has been to farm salmon. Regarding farming the GE salmon, the Washington Post said, “Growing healthful fish in less time, with less feed, is a win for humans (in the form of more affordable salmon) and the environment (in the form of reduced feed requirements and less pressure on forage fish stocks).”

Despite the FDA’s stamp of approval, Americans can still choose whether or not to consume GM foods. But can they? Many Americans are unaware that they are consuming GMOs in many of the foods they buy regularly. The reason? Food companies in America are not required to label their foods containing GMOs. To avoid genetically modified foods in this country, consumers can buy foods that are certified organic or that are stamped by the Non-GMO Project. But for many Americans, shopping organic may not be affordable. Yet conventional foods found in supermarkets across the United States have no labels to indicate that they contain GMOs.

But it goes even further. Polls show that 90 percent of Americans support GMO labeling. In 2014, Vermont was the first state to pass a law requiring GMO labeling. Connecticut and Maine are following suit. But the food industry has invested millions of dollars to fight Americans’ right to know what is in their food. Currently before Congress is the bill “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” developed by food companies that would preempt states from requiring labeling of GMO foods. This legislation has been dubbed by consumer rights advocacy groups as the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know” (DARK Act). Already, this bill has been passed in the House of Representatives.

Of course the food industry claims that to label GMO foods would increase consumer costs. Yet food companies change labels for a number of reasons without it increasing consumer prices. Furthermore, American food companies sell their products in other countries that already require GMO labeling. In fact, there are 64 other countries that have passed laws requiring GMO labeling, including Russia and China. Since American companies already must label their GMO foods for sale in some countries, there is no reason to believe that labeling GMO foods in America would increase the price of the foods being labeled.

However, there is a possibility that GMO labeling would cause many consumers to stop buying GM foods. As demand goes down for GM products, companies would have to produce more foods free of GMOs. Food companies argue that growing non-GMO foods is more costly and therefore would increase consumer cost. Even if that were true, the decision of whether to purchase and consume GM foods is the right of the consumer—NOT the food industry! It seems the food industry is trying to convince consumers that they are doing Americans a favor by not disclosing GMOs on their labels, saving people money and the time it takes to make an informed decision. But are they helping consumers or just protecting sales?

If GMOs are safe as advertised, it begs the question: Why is the food industry trying to hide GMOs from the public? Perhaps they are safe. Perhaps, for example, GM salmon could be helpful to the environment. If so, don’t keep consumers in the dark. Show us. Tell us. And just label it!