Genetically modified (GM) crops have been on supermarket shelves for nearly 20 years. What is newer, and still awaiting approval, are GM animals. An American company, AquaBounty, has developed a salmon incorporating growth genes from a Chinook salmon and a seal eel. These fish grow twice as fast as farmed salmon: they are brought to market size in 18 months instead of 30.
There are two major issues concerning GM products which should be considered. The first is whether they will have a damaging effect on ecosystems. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year published a study concluding that AquaBounty’s Panamanian salmon farm had sufficient measures in place to prevent its salmon escaping. If they did reach the ocean, there are fears the modified fish would out-compete wild Atlantic salmon due to their more rapid growth. However, the FDA concluded that the water temperature surrounding the farm is high enough to stop the fish reaching open water even in the case of an escape.
The second issue relates to whether eating the fish will affect human health. One major aspect of this is the risk of introducing allergens by incorporating genes from different organisms. Having reviewed AquaBounty’s GM salmon, the FDA considers it to be no more dangerous to eat than unmodified Atlantic salmon.
Other health risks are less well known, typically due to a lack of long-term studies concerning the effects of GM foods on people’s health. In the US, this can be traced back to the early days of GM crops, where the first Bush administration concluded that, because GM seeds were “substantially equivalent” to non-GM seeds, there would be no special government tests on the safety of the crops. Since then, large agribusiness companies have been given licenses to pre-approve any studies or results relating to their GM crops, effectively allowing the censorship of any research detrimental to their image.
More information about the effects of GM foods is difficult to come by, as in the past 14 years, the European Union has only approved the cultivation of two GM crops for human consumption. The possibility of approving more has been pushed back to 2014 by the European Commission; a major reason is the lack of reliable information on the effects of GM crops on the environment and consumers.
This highlights the problem at hand, however, in that much of the knowledge needed for approval is attained from the US, where censorship leaves studies suspect. Without faith in the information that the EU requires prior to greater approval of GM foodstuffs, there will continue to be a lack of progress. For any progress at all, more tests must be carried out and their results published regardless of their impact on businesses. Without rigorous and open research, we run the risk of sowing the seeds of experiencing long term harm in an ecosystem modified in ways we hoped to avoid.