Frankenfish: Monster or Savior?

At around year 2010, GE salmon, more commonly known as Frankenfish, was the hot topic in the world of bioagriculture and health. Although the current situation with GE salmon is unknown, some are several articles that were posted between now and 2010 in regards to GE salmon. From reading several articles of the matter, I have observed that many fear is instilled within the articles.

A small Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, called AquaBounty, is trying to fix the consumers’ demand of aquaculture product. Their AquAdvantage salmon contains “a gene from the chinook salmon, a larger cousin that cruises colder waters in the north."  With those genes, AquAdvantage salmons’ vital growth hormone are activated rather than shut down after a specific point, which enables salmon to grow more quickly. According to AquaBounty, the AquAdvantage salmon grow up to twice as fast as a conventional Atlantic salmon.

The reason why this gene modification is important is because the expansion of aquaculture is very demanding of fish food. Atlantic Salmon are carnivores, so they require to be fed a lot of small fish in order to grow. By taking out a mass of small fish from the ocean to feed the salmons, we’re essentially losing more fish than gaining them. With the AquAdvantage salmons, feeding is reduced to certain amount and expansion of aquaculture becomes more sustainable. The economic benefit and environmental preservation are quite obviously advantageous; however, there are concerns with marketing genetically modified transgenic fish for people to consume.

The main concern is the effects of eating transgenic fish and potential harms upheld within it. As of now, there are no concrete evidence which shows that transgenic fish will cause allergic reactions. However, some research has suggested that “transgenic fish, including that presented by the FDA for the approval of the AquAdvantage salmon, may be susceptible to more diseases than fish currently grown in aquaculture facilities."  Even though this statement is not backed up by publicly announced data, the potential danger of this statement being true is quite disastrous. If the statement were to be true, then additional antibiotics have to be given into salmons . Having to insert additional antibiotics into salmons will increase the odds of consumers ingesting some of the antibiotics. This threat of this is that some antibiotics are toxic and it can potentially cause fatal allergic reactions. Also, additional usage of antibiotics will exacerbate the situation of ‘super’ bacteria.

Knowing public’s need of having AquaBounty and other biotechnology company to put their efforts into testing their products for safety and stability from consumption, only time will tell of what may happen with transgenic fish. Hypothetically, if transgenic fish was to be approved to be marketed and sold, then the environment and wild salmon could be in danger. According to the post on ge-fish.org, “eat year millions of farmed salmon escape from open-water net pens.” Even though transgenic fish could be safe, it would be dangerous to have genetically modified organism in the wild causing havoc and other unpredictable consequences. For one thing, having GE salmon, which can grow quickly, in the wild will demolish the natural competition of wild salmon because GE salmon will be fully grown by the time wild salmons reach half way.  

Toe-may-toes, Toe-mah-toes.

Some time ago. the LA Times ran an interesting piece about Why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste bland. According to the article, the new scientific research tells us that the hybridization carried out by tomato breeders over the last several decades has inadvertently introduced a mutation that interferes with sugar production within tomatoes. The interference with sugar production within tomatoes made standard grocery-store tomatoes less tasty or sweet.

It’s important to note that this was the result of good old-fashioned hybridization, which is the kind of cross-breeding of relative plants that humans have been doing for thousands of years. The same hybridization technique has given us, the consumers, nearly all of the fruits and vegetables that human species has lived on for generations.

Interestingly, the LA Times article mentions that the technologies of laboratory genetic engineering could be used to reverse, in a precise way, this unforeseeable error. In fact, scientists have done so in the lab, but such reverse-engineered tomatoes are unlikely to make it to grocery store shelves because they are the products of biotechnology and they must go through extensive examination. Even though it is clear to most people that the benefits of biotechnology is quite promising, the lack of solid regulations and thorough research in the matter seem to put off many consumers from trusting biotechnology.

Hypothetically, what if  the same genetically engineered tomatoes made it onto grocery store shelves? What if consumers could buy tomatoes genetically engineered to include a gene  that preexisted within its predecessor’s genome? In a sense, the result would be far from something “unnatural,” but more authentic tomato than the ones currently available. One would begin to wonder whether reverse engineering will be a viable option or not. One argument that could rise is the fact that reverse engineering a plant to have the genome of its predecessor should be safe because there’s an extensive history of human consuming previous generation of the plant. Proving genetic modification to reverse genome as a safe procedure does not directly support the point that genetically modifying plants by splicing genes from different species is completely safe. However, genetic modification to reverse genome of a species of plant does bring a point to the public that genetic modification is not completely evil or unviable.

The concept of authenticity is a vexed one. For some consumers, it has to do with “naturalness.” In the book, The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter suggests that in at least some instances, people regard authenticity as having something to do with being true to some vision of what a thing ought to be. From this point of view, genetically engineering the tomato to reactivate the GLK2 gene would result in a more authentic tomato, one truer to what tomatoes used to be.

In 1992, Flavr Savr, which was a genetically modified tomato, became the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption. It was modified to slow the ripening process of the tomato while retaining its natural color and flavor. According to FDA, Flavr Savr tomatoes did not require special labeling because the tomatoes retained the essential characteristics of non-modified tomatoes. Specifically, because there were no evidence for health risks or nutritional content change,  FDA approved of Flavr Savr tomatoes.

Like Flavr Savr, future genetic modification should perhaps follow a guideline of limiting genetic modification of a plant. Although changing nutritional content will have great benefits, scientists should start small and insure testing of any possible health risks. Altering nutritional content is much larger scale of genetic modification than modifying few genes. While there are lack of concrete regulations, there are numbers of evidences in favor of biotechnology. One would begin wondering if it will be possible in near future to win public’s opinion on biotechnology as a viable option to solve some problems.

Solution to Overcrowding?

                Even though the human population is steadily increasing, the Earth is not growing. Some scientists and economists believe that genetically modified food might be a key in damping increasing demand; however, some people think that genetically engineering crops are unsafe, and possibly hazardous to the consumers and the environment. Some people think genetically engineering crops is uncontrollable, but some have theorized that genetically engineered crops can be controlled and GE crops are essential for improving agriculture without harming the human-community.

                One way the GE foods can be a key to preserve human population is to increase or alternate nutritional values. Scientists wanted to improve the nutrition level of the soy beans so they spliced a gene from rich protein Brazil nuts into soybeans. Although it was successful, some people and animals, who consumed the genetically modified soybeans, faced death-threatening allergic reaction to the Brazil nut allergens. Similar to the previous incident, there were other incidents involving a creation new breed of crops that created foreign allergens from a foreign organism. Another health concern about genetically modified crops is the quality and flavor of the product the crops produce. According to Borenstein and Ritter, writers from The Associated Press, a genetically modified tomato named the Flavr Savr tomato did not taste good and it essentially had no flavor to be “saved”. The genetically modified crops taste bad or have no taste, so scientists have been recreating the crops to achieve their initial goal and better flavor. The recreation of the crops means further manipulation of genes that are responsible for nutrition or flavor, which will possibly lead to complications or negative effects.

                Crops can be engineered to improve agriculture and it can be controlled to prevent harms to the consumers. Some people think genetically engineered crops are unnatural, however it is no different from cross-breeding. Cross-breeding occurs naturally or selectively to maintain the health of organisms and genetically engineering is more precise and controlled version of cross-breeding. The only difference between cross-breeding and genetically modifying organisms is that cross-breeding is reproduction between two species and genetically engineering is insertion of genetic material from one species into another .

                Even though the new breed of genetically engineered crops may release foreign allergens, the genetically engineered crops can be improved by removing the allergens from the crops. According to Rader, a PhD electronic engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “the technology to eliminate allergen from food crops is relatively easy”. The problem may be around in finding allergen within a GE crop, but with research there should not be too much trouble. Pursuing the problem of allergens and solving it should be quite convincing for the consumers with or without labels. As for the quality and flavor aspects of genetically modified crops, scientists have found different ways to change them without creating complications. Mattoo, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found a way to manipulate nutrition or flavor by turning on or off genes that are naturally present in the plant. Turning on or off genes is quite different from introducing new genes into crop. This, theoretically, should be simpler but there is the problem of figuring out which genes relate to which favor. Similar with allergens, scientists need to create research and study the correlation between specific genes and flavor. 

To Label, or Not To Label

                http://soc168.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/dco0009l4.jpg

               Labeling GM foods and food products is a lingering issue that is still not resolved in U.S. Although about 40 countries around the world require labels on GM foods, U.S. Food and Drug Administration has refused to pass on a requirement for labeling because they deem it unnecessary. According to a journal, written by Byrne, P., “mandatory labeling of GE foods in the U.S. has been proposed, but not enacted, at the national, state, and local levels.” As of right now, California’s ballot initiative in the 2012 California elections for ‘California Right to Known About GE Food Initiative (2012)' has been met the signature requirement and became certified for the November 6, 2012 ballot. Mandatory labeling may sound like a completely advantageous requirement in regards to consumers and GM foods, but there are several disadvantages for mandatory labeling.

                The most obvious advantage of having mandatory labeling on GM foods and food products is the informative it gives to the consumers of the risks of GM foods. Having label on GM foods and food products can inform consumers of possible allergens or the type of modification taken place in the food. However, labels can imply that the GM foods are unsafe even when there is no difference between GM foods and other foods. FDA has stated that “where genetically modified crops don’t different from non-GM crops, that products containing them don’t have to be labeled." Assuming FDA runs tests on GM foods, FDA’s statement seems logical in the sense that food production companies do not want to scare consumers with unnecessary labels. While some GM foods may not require labels, GM foods with different nutritional profile in comparison to its relative food should be labeled for potential allergens or for consumers in specific nutritional diets. (Side note: Technically, all foods are genetically modified but, for simplicity, we will focus on foods that have been genetically modified through non-traditional way, which involves DNA slicing from different species for potential benefits.)

                By giving descriptive informative on the labels of GM foods, consumers have a choice on consuming GM foods. Even though labels seem to give consumers a choice, does it actually give them a choice when labeling is only enforced on specific categories of GM foods? Also, by having organic foods available in chain supermarkets, is it not reasonable to state that consumers always had a choice to avoid GM foods? Labeling may seem like a risk free regulation, but labeling costs will increase the costs of GM foods, which is large majority of foods bought from supermarkets. Having to pay additional cost to purchase GM foods contradicts the philosophy of GM foods, which is to produce nutritionally beneficial, low cost foods to third world countries, because poor countries will not be able to purchase and benefit from it.

                According to Yao, Qiong, who has PhD in management, and Wang, Liang, who has master degree in management, “quality benefit affects the purchase intention toward GM soybean oil and GM livestock product only in the case of discount." They go to mention in the following sentence to say that price, also, affects the purchase. There are no current survey (that I personally can find) in regards to consumers’ purchasing behavior of GM foods in countries with mandatory labeling, but price does definitely affect consumers’ behavior. It would be beneficial for both food production companies and consumers if labeling was not necessary on every GM foods. There are, also, ethical and religious sides to labeling, so it will be very difficult to lean on just one side of the argument.            

Check this Youtube link on Greenpeace’s perspective of GE crops and it’s impact on Earth. Keep an open mind while watching this video and try to compare the facts stated, by Greenpeace, to facts by others. You may notice exaggeration and unwillingness to acknowledge the benefits of GE crops within the video.

Commercialization of GMO

     As biotechnology developed with time, commercialization of genetically engineered seeds changed. In the previous blog post, Impact on the Environment, I have mentioned the potential danger of GE crop gene flow. I have, also, mentioned the improbability of gene flow to occur because of the isolation of GE crop from their wild relatives. From looking at GE seeds from business perspective, agricultural biotechnology corporations can only sell GE seeds mostly to new farmers because farmers with GE seeds can harvest seeds from the crops for next farming season. To force the farmers to purchase new GE seeds every season, some agricultural biotechnology corporations, like Monsanto, genetically modify seeds to decease after harvest or force GE seed purchasers to sign an agreement to not replant the seeds from harvest.

     Although the ideas behind utilization of GM crops for consumable harvest are seen to be necessary for health of environment and human’s survival by some analysts, commercialization and political guideline are seen to the public as corporation’s agenda to make money. Monsanto corporation has 674 biotechnology patents, so, “farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting or to sell the seed to other farmers.” Although some can say Monsanto wants to prevent gene flow by prohibiting farmers from re-planting with previous season’s crop seeds, it seems as though the company wants to continuously make sales and force farmers to throw away perfectly useable seeds. Small farmers who refuse to purchase and use large corporation’s GE seeds are largely threatened by same large corporations. Besides being unable to consistently result with higher harvest yield using traditional seeds than GE seeds, small farms lose against large corporations in lawsuit for having GE seeds in their crop field. The reason why small farms would be in court against large agricultural biotechnology corporation is because when GE seeds get caught by draft of wind and randomly land on small farmers’ land. GE seeds are patent, so large corporations have the right to push a lawsuit. With no laws in regards to randomly drafted GE seeds from different farms, it is very difficult for small farmers’ to compete against the large corporation and it is even more difficult for U.S. Supreme Court to create ground base of laws. There are too many variables to cover for U.S. Supreme Court but I wont get into that because of lack of information and knowledge of process in law creation. For some food for thought, check out this news article about GM soy beans, which were illegally transported to Brazil from US, being the largest production in Brazil and the undecided owner of the royalties that Monsanto have received from Brazil’s GM soy bean sales. With lack of information and attraction toward the controversial topic of GMO, only time will tell when new regulations will be instated.

For some food for thought until the next blog is posted, check this journal, which is  about GE seeds being helpful for poor nations. The advantage for GE seeds and the commercialization of it to other nations is clearly shown in poor countries but there seems to be no advantage, in regards to yield of harvest, for countries that can stand on their feet.

Impact on the Environment

          We do not know the potential adverse effects of consuming GM foods, but we do have some information in regards to environment. The GM crops have direct and indirect effects on the environment. The direct effects of GM crops are horizontal gene flow and toxin’s impact on insects. Horizontal gene flow suggests that gene transfers through natural events, such as wind. The transfer of gene from cultivated species to their wild relatives could potentially have negative impact. It is possible to think gene flow as positive event rather than negative event; however, negative consequences of gene flow outweigh the benefits. For example, if GM crops, which is modified to release toxin that is harmful for only insects, were grown near species of wild relative, then gene flow may occur. In this example, gene flow would not seem harmful if the toxin only killed pests, but, as of now, there are no pests targeting toxins. Imagine what sort of ecological damage GM crops have if the gene flow occurs and beneficial insects, such as monarch butterfly, were kills. However, many of the world’s major foot plants are not native to the areas in which they are grown. With lack of relative wild species for gene flow to occur in an area,  crop  would be fairly safe to grow. In some cases, gene flow would not be a problem if the gene flow between cultivated plants and their wild relative plants is not an environmental problem. Although gene flow does not seem like a concerning issue, until GM crops are designed to prevent gene flow  or prevented from spreading pollen, it would be best in interest of scientists to keep gene flow of GM crops at bay.

          The indirect effects of GM crops relate to insecticide and herbicde. With Bt gene, which is a common gene used in genetically modified crops for insect resistances, the use of insecticide on crops has reduced. This is beneficial for the environment and for the farmer. It is environmentally beneficial because there will be less contamination of water supply and less damage on non-targeted insects. Also, it is beneficial for the farmer of GM crops because the farmer would save money for not having to buy hundreds of pound of insecticides. With crops with herbicide-resistance gene modification, use of less toxic forms of herbicides has increased. With less toxic forms of herbicides, low-till agriculture is encouraged and soil conservation increases. However, increase in use of herbicides could erode habitats for species living around the area with exposure of herbicides. Insect resistant crops and herbicide may seem to provide more benefits than consequences, but, the extensive use of insect resistant crops and herbicide has increasing potential of resulting in super weeds and insects.  The emergence of herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insect pests bring complication and threat. Primarily, the Bt gene  and herbicides would become less effective. This would force farmers to use more toxic herbicides and different insect resistant crops. Use of insecticides and herbicides in conventional farming have led to emergence of insecticide resistance insects and herbicide resistant weeds, but using GM crops would be somewhat better with the result of environmental benefits. 

Uninformed Consumers

                To this day, genetically modified food has been a controversial topic among consumers and scientists. There are many factors to consider when one genetically alters an organism, which we will consume for energy and its benefits. From comparing the arguments between the two sides, some scientists have wondered what the specific reasons for opposition of genetically modified foods. In the article Consumer Willingness-to-Pay For GM Food Products In Italy, a survey was designed to provide additional information to the debate and to evaluate the degree of awareness, knowledge, and attitudes towards genetically modified foods. From the empirical analysis from data obtained, the paper reinforces the idea that one of the main reasons for opposition of genetically modified foods is lack of knowledge in regards to genetic modification and consumption of the genetically modified food. Although the analysis shows that practical reasons triumphs over ethical reasons, not everyone thinks in a manner of practicality.

                The information of genetically modified food is not entirely common among the population of consumers for few reasons. For starters, there is the lingering problem of labeling food products as to indicate whether it contains genetically modified foods contained inside the food product or not. The issue of labeling has slowly been taken cared of; however, the knowledge of benefits and potential harm of consuming genetically modified foods seems to be lacking. It is somewhat of a common knowledge among consumers that organic food is the best, but they do not seem to realize that it is not entirely true. The choosing between organic food and food products containing genetically modified food is led closely by ethical reasons rather than practical reasons. According to the article, “it is also clear that whenever consumers are given correct information they are more willing to pay higher prices in order to benefit from quality improvements…” The assumption that not every consumer is educated in field of biotechnology and genetics can be quite safe to say, so it isn’t entirely at fault of consumers. It is not an easy subject one can simply understand over night. One can imagine what a corrupt company could do with the understanding of consumers’ lack of certain expertise. Simply by playing into consumers search for beneficial food products or creating fear of genetically modified foods to consumers can be economically advantageous for the manipulator.

                Although it may be tempting to think that the issue will diminish from educating consumers, but there are more to it than dealing with consumers and ethical issues. In reality, scientists are not completely sure of the effects from consuming genetically modified foods. Nearly every day, they are creating experiments and writing journals to find out about the short term and long term effects of consuming genetically modified foods will have on consumers. This does not mean scientists do not entirely know what will happen, but rather they do not have sufficient evidence to create a statement in regards to genetically modified foods. As far as scientists know, it is quite safe to consumer genetically modified food and many consumers have lived long enough to support the idea. I will review journals, relating to genetically modified foods and genetics, to see what the current situation is and analysis the current progress in a similar manner of an article by Arpad Pusztai, Susan Bardocz, and Stanley W.B. Ewen.

About Me

            My name is Yuji Gomikawa, and I am half Korean and half Japanese. I was born in New Jersey, but, when I was 7 years old, I moved to South Korea. I moved back to United States, California, and I lived here ever since. I learned English through watching Simpsons during my Elementary years.

               My major is Microbiology and I have abundant interest in virology. Initially, I wanted to enter Pre-Med program, but I felt the requirement of volunteering for restless hours outweighs the doctoral status. I am interested in neurology and environmental science; however, I, currently,  find virology  more intriguing compared to the other two.  

                The purpose of this blog is to explore a topic, which will be related to my career field, of my choosing.  I will examine my topic from analysis of empirical studies relating to the topic. Along with in-depth analysis, there will be questioning in regards to the purpose and importance of the topic. Depending on the topic, there will be analysis of multiple different perspectives to cover general view of scientific community on the topic. Even though there will be confusion with terminology and concepts behind the topic, I will explain and present the concepts in a comprehensive manner for general audience.