September 28, 2011

Genetically-engineered animals could help American farmers

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

For the FDA, one fish is causing big problems. The AquAdvantage (AA) Salmon, a genetically-engineered (GE) salmon, famous for growing twice as fast as conventional salmon, has been under FDA review for 15 years. As the first GE animal created for human consumption, the AA Salmon has been subject to safety, environmental and ethics arguments. Just this July, eight senators presented a letter to the FDA urging the agency to stop considering the salmon for approval.

This interest from legislators comes after years of public scrutiny. There are websites devoted to stopping this “frankenfish” and one New York Times columnist even wrote that the salmon “opens the door to federal approval of all kinds of freaks from the farm.”

But Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist from UC Davis and expert in animal genomics and biotechnology, argues that AA Salmon are hugely misunderstood. _Van Eenennaam says AA Salmon pose no more risk than fast-growing, conventionally-bred salmon. Studies have shown no differences in the meat, and the AA Salmon conditions of use clearly state that the fish will be produced as triploid (infertile), all-female stock and will be housed in tanks on land so there would be little chance of interbreeding with wild salmon. Plus, a sustainable supply of AA salmon could help relieve over-fishing of wild salmon populations.

“There’s no science-based reason why we should prohibit this technology,” said Van Eenennaam in an interview.

Van Eenennaam believes that some of the push to stop AA Salmon approval comes from wild salmon fishery interests concerned about market competition. Again, said Van Eenennaam, that is not a reason for Congress to interfere.

“It undermines the scientific review process,” she said.

The issue of federal approval for food from GE animals is important as more animal scientists explore the benefits of genetic engineering.

Van Eenennaam explained that GE animals could grow faster, have better meat quality, and have greater disease resistance than traditionally-bred animals. She said that genetic engineering can benefit animals too. For example, improving disease resistance in animals means the animal is healthier and animal welfare is improved. Disease-resistant animals would also reduce the need for antibiotics.

Faster-growing, healthier animals also mean more food for hungry populations. Van Eenennaam said that disease-resistant livestock could help farmers in developing countries.

“Genetically-engineered animals have the potential to produce food more efficiently,” she said.

But—as seen in the case of the AA Salmon—it’s not easy to get public support for GE animals. Van Eenennaam gives talks to non-scientists about GE animals, and she said it’s hard for people to get excited when they just hear about production traits like growth or meat quality. Instead, Van Eenennaam relates GE traits to the audience’s own life.

For example, Van Eenennaam will explain the importance of a mastitis-resistant GE cow.

“Women who’ve had children can relate because they have often suffered from mastitis themselves,” Van Eenennaam said.

And someone who has dealt with mastitis firsthand during nursing can better appreciate the importance of research to produce a mastitis-resistant cow.

It may be tricky to tackle the GE controversy cow by cow, but Van Eenennaam said scientists and farmers will be in trouble if they don’t make an effort to change public perception. The U.S. agriculture industry risks falling behind in global market if other nations start producing GE animals for food.

“China is going full-speed ahead,” Van Eenennaam said. “Europe and America are going to be left behind in this technology if they continue to have this excessive regulatory burden.”