By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A fishy tale about science and political muscle

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the FDA’s decision to give preliminary approval to genetically modified salmon is potentially dangerous — not just to human health, but to the very idea of what is food.

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  1. L.K. Collins

    If you don’t want to eat it, Dan, nobody is forcing you to.

    Want pure food? With not much work, you can find it.

    p.s. I really don’t think you are qualified to be the world’s nanny.

  2. Christian Avard

    Thanks for writing this Dan. It’s scary to think that we have the capacity to scramble/change the genetic code of the last two-million years or so. You gotta ask yourself, at what cost does this benefit society? Something needs to be done. You can’t just release foods on the market without sufficient testing. In America, it seems like the FDA’s m/o is to approve things first and fix things later. They don’t do that in many European countries. They’re very careful and thorough before they even put anything on the market.

    GMOs and genetically modified foods do not benefit society, no matter what Monsanto and other companies tell you. They CANNOT save the world from famine and/or farming. The world already produces enough food to feed the world five times over or something like that. The problem with food is political. Distribution of resources/food gives people money and power and unfortunately, people misuse and abuse it. So Monsanto won’t save the world with better farming or longer lasting plants/crops, etc.

    Most of all, there are hidden health effects to GMOs and very few independent studies that document the effects of human health. I think there were only two independent studies ever done and the other 6 or 8 were funded by the biotech industry. For more on hidden health effects and number of studies conducted click here.

    As for L.K. Collins’s comments, I think proper labeling should be required. Especially when it comes to rBGH. Consumers have the right to know what they’re putting into their bodies, especially when we know there hasn’t been enough testing done. We shouldn’t have to be the FDA’s or the biotech companies’ guinea pigs. As for the declining numbers of salmon, I suggest more stringent regulations for fishing and the removal of dams. Dams are the number one killer of salmon. There are no easy solutions, but I think there in lies the sources of the problem (fishing and dams).

    Disclaimer: I was Jeffrey Smith’s first publicist. Smith is the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology and author of the best-selling book on GMOs “Seeds of Deception.” Had a fun time working for him.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: Thanks. As I’m sure you know, the food industry has been fighting hammer-and-tong against labeling. Some years back Monsanto sued milk companies that labeled their product as being from rBGH-free cows. The compromise that was eventually reached was that you can say it, but you can’t even hint that it’s better for you in any way.

      As with milk from cows given rBGH, genetically modified salmon would not be labeled. You’d have to look for salmon specifically labeled as not modified. No doubt we can look forward to political battles over that as well.

  3. L.K. Collins

    “As for L.K. Collins’s comments, I think proper labeling should be required…Dams are the number one killer of salmon. “–Christian Avard

    I wholeheartedly agree, for both public health and personal choice reasons for the former and well demonstrated scientific reasons for the latter.

    Proper labeling is what Dan should be advocating if he really wants to be a nanny that has the slightest chance of accomplishing anything.

    Common sense fisheries management is what he should be advocating to help the cause that could assure that he has a salmon to eat.

    An aside: Given Dan’s admitted paucity in depth and breadth of knowledge regarding things scientific, I wonder if he has any factual basis for his assumption that things is bad. But then again, he often seems to have limited factual bases for many of the political stands he takes.

  4. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Exactly how much genetically engineered milk and salmon do I need to consume before I reach IGF-1 levels that pose a cancer risk? If it’s an average of 5 gallons and 5 pounds per day, then there’s nothing to worry about. If the amounts are 5 glasses and 5 ounces, then this certainly is a serious public health concern.

  5. Mike Stucka

    I’ll confess I don’t know enough about the genetically engineered salmon to render an informed opinion.

    But in areas where the science is clear, I’m beyond exhausted of all the morons trying to kill their children by avoiding in some cases centuries of scientific progress, all in the name of living a more “natural” life. Apparently the kind of natural life when 35 was an old man, if you were lucky enough to survive the smallpox. And scarlet fever. And survive childbirth itself.

    This push toward all-naturalism is bringing back unpasteurized milk (can we say “growth medium”? Yes we can!), unpasteurized fruit juices, raw meat — all the things that have a long and well-proven track record of killing people — even in recent history.

    As I said, I don’t know about the salmon. But if you could point me toward irradiated ground beef, I’d be in the Express checkout lane before you could put your finger down.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Irradiated beef? Free radicals. And I don’t mean unimprisoned leftists. Far better not to eat prepackaged hamburger, as nasty a substance in the industrial food chain as there is.

      Totally agree that the unpasteurized-milk movement is nuts. But surely you’d agree there is a big difference between that and the impulse to eat vegetables and fruits free of pesticides and meat from animals that haven’t been tortured and, in the case of cattle, brought to the brink of death by fattening them up with corn, which is toxic to them.

      Couldn’t work this tidbit into the Guardian piece, but Michael Pollan has reported that some salmon farms are working on ways to get fish to eat ultra-cheap, government-subsidized corn. We’re going to end up with salmon as unhealthful as a well-marbled steak. Mmmm.

  6. Mike Stucka

    One of the biggest problems with corn isn’t the corn, but the bizarre subsidies. It’s not particularly easy on the soil, especially healthy as a food additive, especially useful as a fuel origin.

    I rather like my well-marbled industrialized steak, especially when coated in kosher salt.

    But … Do I understand where some pure food advocates come from? Sure. But it seems an odd slippery slope for a lot of people who wind up questioning pasteurization, cooking, and then somehow wind up risking their families by dodging vaccines. Never before in history have we had so much benefit from science; never before in history have we had so much access to quality research; and never before have so many people scorned those advances and ridiculed them.

    My personal record so far is the executive director of an environmental organization who didn’t know what H-2-O was.

    I’m not trying to argue that this is an either-or kind of deal, either you get to die at age 26 after surviving smallpox on a South Pacific island somewhere, or you have to eat McD’s for all your meals and eat hypertension medication by the handful. But I think it’s awfully important to do good research and put things in perspective.

    @Ben made a good point in looking at actual levels, and yet that doesn’t seem to be addressed in popular reports, ever.

    I tried to find an answer; laughed when I found this Science article from 1998: “a 100 ng/ml increase in IGF-I corresponded to an approximate doubling of risk (RR = 2.1 per 100 ng/ml increase 95% CI 1.3 to 3.2)” … great CI there, chief! … but I still don’t have a good answer.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: I did address @Ben’s question, but not in the way that he (or you) might like. The levels of IGF-1 in GM salmon and milk from cows given rBGH are elevated by such a small amount that they are still within the normal range. But what will be the effect of many more GM foods entering the market, especially if they also have elevated levels of IGF-1? One of the problems here is that the FDA is required to consider each food in isolation, when in fact that may be exactly the wrong approach.

  7. Mike Stucka

    @Dan: People as a general rule aren’t good at calculating relative risks when the risks are small (see Freakonomics, etc.).

    By some studies, meat consumption is already associated with (somewhat) higher incidences of (some kinds of) cancer. How would you like the FDA to factor that in?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: The FDA aside, meat consumption is already much less healthful than it needs to be because of what animals are fed and the conditions in which they’re raised, which requires the use of antibiotics. How do you calculate that? You can’t just pull at one thread without the whole thing coming apart.

  8. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Dan: I thought you made a great point and that’s what prompted me to ask the question as I did. You’re right, the cumulative effects of IGF-1 from multiple sources could pose a problem even if a single serving of salmon doesn’t. But without knowing how much salmon and dairy it takes to reach the point of increased cancer risk, we really don’t know what kind of a threat (if any) we’re dealing with.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ben: It’s in the FDA report on genetically modified salmon, to which I linked in the Guardian. I couldn’t follow the terminology, but it’s clear that it’s very low. Milk may be another story. Here’s something that claims Monsanto’s own studies show IGF-1 levels may be five times higher in cows given rBGH. But that seems to be a real outlier.

  9. Christian Avard

    Here’s my last plug for Jeffrey Smith. He was recently on RT and here’s what he had to say about the latest developments with genetically modified salmon.

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