What the FDA Isn’t Telling Us About GE Salmon
By Tim Schwab
In September 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appeared primed to approve AquaBounty’s genetically engineered (GE) salmon, the hormone-enhanced fish that, nevertheless, can’t live up to its fast-growth hype. Trumpeting unprecedented transparency, the FDA released to the public hundreds of pages of the agency’s favorable risk assessment, along with an announcement of a days-away public meeting in Rockville, Maryland. The extremely short timeline seemed designed to limit public participation and independent criticisms of the FDA’s scientific work, as few people could drop everything and rush to Maryland.
On the Friday before Christmas 2012, the agency that protects 80 percent of our food supply gave us an encore performance. On a day when few people are at work and many are making plans for extended vacations, the FDA issued its environmental assessment, a 160-page document that basically regurgitates verbatim the agency’s weak 2010 assessment. This moves AquaBounty’s GE salmon within one step of full approval.
The FDA’s risk assessments are noteworthy, not for what they do tell us, but for what they don’t. Instead of scrutinizing the flawed science, limited data, examples of bias and lingering safety concerns that independent scientists have highlighted, the FDA continues to treat its risk assessment as an exercise in churning out the Frankenstein refrain: GE salmon. Safe. Good.
On food safety, the agency only looked at a handful of fish, which exhibited 50 percent higher rates of allergenicity and 40 percent higher rates of a growth hormone linked to cancer in humans. The FDA played with the data to show the differences weren’t “statistically significant,” even though an independent statistician invited by the FDA called the agency’s analysis woefully flawed.
The FDA is also failing to address AquaBounty’s track record of dangerously lax stewardship, which should trigger questions about the likelihood of GE salmon escapes from their facilities. In a 12 to 15-month period between 2008 and 2009, AquaBounty appears to have lost most of its GE salmon to mechanical failures, falling trees, unusual storms and disease.
AquaBounty’s grow-out facility in Panama experienced a devastating storm in 2008, which led the company to report to their shareholders that GE salmon were “lost.” Initially, AquaBounty said the “unusually severe storm” caused a mechanical failure, then later said a tree fell on the facility and the “lost” fish actually died. The FDA has never publicly acknowledged or verified this.
Within about a year of this calamity, AquaBounty’s other experimental facility—in Canada—was being ravaged by deadly disease called infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAV). How it got into AquaBounty’s facilities is a question that, conveniently, remains unasked and unanswered by the FDA. What we do know is that AquaBounty began voluntarily killing most of its broodstock.
Though the catastrophic ISAV outbreak occurred in 2009, the FDA didn’t mention it in its 2010 risk assessment or public meeting. More galling, when AquaBounty’s president spoke at the 2010 meeting, he criticized his competitors—Chilean, English, Scottish and Norwegian salmon growers—for ISAV outbreaks at their facilities. He didn’t mention his own company’s struggles with ISAV.
But what is perhaps most suspect about FDA’s risk assessment is the agency’s failure to verify that GE salmon can actually do what AquaBounty says they can do: grow fast. Many salmon growers and scientists have now labeled GE salmon’s purported growth-rates as little more than hype, with one grower openly challenging AquaBounty.
The flawed scientific work by the FDA on GE salmon sets an extremely dangerous precedent for the future of our food system. The pro-biotech bent at the FDA shouldn’t be terribly surprising given that the agency’s policy makers on GE have historically come from the biotech industry. The Obama administration, likewise, isn’t immune to the half-billion dollars in campaign contributions and lobby money spent by the biotech industry in the last decade. It also isn’t terribly surprising that the FDA waited to issue this controversial risk-assessment until after the election.
Your members of Congress need to know that the FDA has dropped the ball on GE salmon, a dangerous fish that consumers don’t want to eat, growers don’t want to produce, and society doesn’t need. You can also tell the FDA directly to stop the experiment.
Visit EcoWatch’s GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISM page for more related news on this topic.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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