If GM creatures are ‘safe’, why worry about ‘negligible risk’ of escape?

gm salmon

Two stories in the news are currently giving me a few concerns. At first glance, they may appear unconnected but they are linked by the facts that they involve genetically modified creatures and that one has already been approved while a field test of the other is being supported by a parliamentary scientific committee.

Now, we have heard a great deal about genetically modified (GM) crops and the subject has been the cause of a protests, debate and international restrictions. To some, GM is a solution to the world food shortage while to others it is a step fraught with dangers, a step into the unknown, a frightening step too far.

I will not knowingly eat anything that includes a genetically modified ingredient and, when I used to have a smallholding, I always bought GM-free animal feed.

The first news story giving me concern is the decision of the USA’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to approve GM Atlantic Salmon as suitable for human consumption while at the same time saying that there is no need to label it as being genetically modified.

The decision only relates to two land-based breeding and production facilities, so far, in Canada and Mexico. Maybe I am being cynical, but isn’t it strange that both sites are outside the USA even though the company involved is based in Massachusetts?

Further, apparently, there is almost no chance, a negligible risk, of any GM fish escaping and mixing with natural fish. Almost no chance? That means there IS a chance, however small. And, if the GM salmon is so safe, why even be worried about any escaping?

The ‘good news’, however, is that all the GM fish will be sterile females – but more about that later!

The second story is that a scientific committee of the UK parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, has called on the government to support a field trial of GM insects. It claims they could provide safer alternatives to pesticides or even eliminate transmission of lethal diseases.

Such a move has been the subject of a ban by European Union regulations but the committee feels that this ban has already been broken and that Britain should now take a lead.

But where would it go? How can a field trial be controlled? How can GM insects be prevented from mixing with natural ones? Ah, but they would all be sterile!

Lord Selborne, who chairs the committee, said that companies need to be encouraged as GM insect technology has the potential to save countless lives worldwide and to generate significant economic benefits for Britain. Potential to save lives? Maybe but also a potential for unknown disaster too.

Mark Shadlow, chief executive of conservation group Buglife, said: “We are surprised that the report didn’t summarise the environmental risks that were highlighted in its evidence gathering and instead recommended a UK ‘field trial’, without making a clear case for a UK problem that needs to be tackled or, therefore, the type of insect to be trialled.”

In both cases, though, the GM creatures are said to be sterile (female salmon and male insects) and incapable of reproduction. If they are so ‘safe’, I wonder why such precautions are even considered necessary.

Environmentalists have long opposed the plan, saying the modified fish could escape its containment and mix with wild salmon populations.

The FDA said an escape is almost impossible because of redundant measures put in place to contain them in tanks. It also says that because the fish are sterile, they would not be able to breed with wild salmon.

But is sterility any guarantee? Not according to Canadian scientists who have found that the GM salmon ‘are capable of hybridizing with wild brown trout, creating offspring that carry modified growth genes and outcompete both wild and GM fish’.

Even if successfully kept apart from other creature, is ‘all same gender’ any real safeguard against reproduction? Well, no, not really. Nature has a number of examples of creatures that can change sex to overcome a shortage of one of them.

Molly Edmonds, writing in How Stuff Works – Health, says, “Reproductive success and continued survival are the main reasons that species change sex. The change could also occur due to environmental factors or chemical triggers that scientists don’t understand yet.”

 

Pic: A genetically modified Atlantic salmon with a natural salmon of the same age. Picture by Aquabounty, the Massachusetts-based company behind the GM salmon project.

 

Note: The author of this blog was named Farming Journalist of the Year in Wales, UK, while Rural Affairs Editor of a regional newspaper group, in 1999.

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