The FDA, as we have seen, strongly supports genetically modified organisms, even though no independent studies have proven that GMOs are safe for human consumption—in fact, animal studies show that GMOs can cause birth defects, high infant mortality rates, fertility problems, sterility, immune system deregulation, and accelerated aging, in addition to many other side effects.
The first GMO animal approved for human consumption
In 2010, the FDA invited public comment on a genetically modified strain of salmon (“Frankenfish” to its critics). There were two issues: whether the FDA should approve this “new animal drug application” (because it is new ground for the FDA and there are no regulations about genetically engineered animals, it was evaluated as if it were an animal treated with drugs); and whether the fish (if approved) must be labeled as genetically engineered or not.
AquAdvantage Salmon was designed to grow twice as fast as traditional fish. It is an Atlantic salmon containing the Chinook salmon growth hormone gene, plus an antifreeze protein gene from the ocean pout—an eel-like creature from a different family of marine organisms.
In 2015, the FDA approved the genetically engineered salmon despite a vocal public outcry, making it the first GE animal to be approved for human consumption. The approval of the GE salmon will likely lead to the development of more GE animals. The New York Times reports that “there has been a surge in interest in developing new genetically engineered animals and pets because new techniques…allow scientists to edit animal genomes rather than add genes from other species.” Scientists in China, for instance, have created goats with more muscle and longer hair. We can only imagine the variety of GMO animal products that will be hitting stores in the near future.
The salmon is expected to enter the market in about two years, but some major retailers have already pledged not to carry it, including Safeway, Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. A complete list of the stores that signed the pledge can be found here.
The GMO salmon will not come to market until the FDA completes guidelines on how it should be labeled, thanks to language added to the 2016 omnibus budget bill by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Unfortunately, as of this writing, it is possible that the FDA will make the labeling of the salmon voluntary, meaning that it will likely not be labeled.
The approval of the AquaAdvantage sets a troubling precedent. How many more science experiments will the FDA approve for American dinner plates?
What about GMO crops?
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup—the most common weed killer in the world—poses many grave threats to human health and has been classified as a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization. According to the National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet, glyphosate is not included in compounds tested for by the FDA’s Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program, nor in the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program.
Largely, GMOs fall within the purview of the US Department of Agriculture rather than the FDA, but since USDA’s jurisdiction covers only plant pests and noxious weeds, there are very few studies of actual long-term human health effects of GMOs—which are the FDA’s territory.
Accordingly, in 2013, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) wrote to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and asked it to look into the review system being used to regulate genetically modified crops—specifically, “to ensure that [it]fully reflects current science.” In 2014, the GAO agreed to begin a review of how the USDA and FDA look at the long-term safety of genetically engineered crops both in the environment and in the food supply.
Given the government’s crony ties to the biotech industry, we are skeptical that any overhaul of the regulatory scheme for GMOs will benefit consumers. It is much more likely that a new regulatory structure will benefit those producing GMO foods.