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Approval of GM salmon for eating is premature

By Ira Zunin

LAST UPDATED: 1:52 a.m. HST, Oct 2, 2010

This summer, my son and I flew to Alaska to fish for salmon. Alaskans are always welcoming to Hawaii watermen as both share a passion for the pristine beauty and bounty of Mother Earth's rivers and oceans. Salmon are incredible in the water, and the color of the flesh is amazing. Hana paa! We landed a lively 40-pounder! There is nothing like sharing a fresh catch with family and friends at the table.

Wild salmon is among the tastiest and most healthful of animal foods. It is low in calories and saturated fat yet high in protein, omega-3 essential fatty acids and loaded with vitamins. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and clotting, which might minimize the risk of heart attack and stroke. They improve cholesterol and might prevent the onset of diabetes. Salmon also contains less mercury than highly prized ahi and marlin and fewer contaminants than reef fish.

The Food and Drug Administration is about to grant approval for salmon to be the first genetically engineered animal available for human consumption. Why not? Knowingly or unknowingly, we already consume multiple GM plants. GM salmon, which contain a gene from the pout fish, grow at twice the size. That sounds good. Farmed salmon, not wild, already comprise more than 90 percent of all salmon eaten.

Certainly there is a need for food. Although obesity is one of the most vexing public health problems in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization, global hunger is still the single greatest threat to public health, affecting more than 1 billion people, or 1 in 6 on the planet.

While aquaculture is expanding faster than any other animal-based food sector, at least three-quarters of all monitored wild marine stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Capture fisheries production has been stagnant for 20 years while demand keeps rising.

Genetically modified salmon, according to the American Medical Association, are "substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts and no long-term side effects have yet been detected." The AMA statement is not only supportive of the pending FDA decision; it further indicates that there is no duty to inform consumers when the salmon they eat is genetically modified.

Anyone who has taken a science course in middle school can tell you about natural selection, the balance of nature and how little it takes to upset an ecosystem. The first salmon ancestors lived in the primeval lakes of Canada 40 to 50 million years ago. The truth is we have no idea how a genetically modified salmon, with a pout gene that makes it grow twice as fast, will affect human health or the environment.

AquaBounty, the small biotech company that developed the GM salmon, assures us that 98 percent of its eggs produce fish that cannot reproduce. Still, if GM salmon escape as farmed fish have in the past, those 2 percent fertile supersalmon could out-compete our wild salmon populations in no time.

It would be recklessly premature to approve genetically engineered salmon for human consumption. To open a Pandora's box to GM animals, especially one prized for its health benefits, would begin a slippery slope for which the FDA is unprepared.

For now, we should continue efforts to:

» Monitor GM plant foods and study both health and environmental impacts.
» Monitor health impacts of existing non-GM farmed salmon.
» Effectively protect and preserve our wild fisheries.
» Address world hunger with known, safe food products.

If GM salmon do slip through the FDA's net, they should at the least be labeled as such in the marketplace. If not, those averse to GM foods would have to give up this fish altogether. Few of us can go to Alaska and catch a wild one every time we have a taste for salmon.

Ira Zunin, M.D., MPH, MBA, is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit questions to

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