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From GloFish to Frankenfish

by DAN BACHER

The GloFish, a zebra fish genetically engineered to glow in the dark in aquariums, was approved for sale to the public by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on December 9.

However, you won’t be able to purchase them in California when they become available in other states on January 5 because the State Fish and Game Commission ruled in December not to grant an exemption to its ban on genetically modified fish adopted earlier in the year.

The FDA’s statement regarding the GloFish, the first transgenic fish approved for sale by the federal government, was short and curt. “Because tropical fish are not used for food purposes, they pose no threat to the food supply. There is no evidence that these genetically modified fish pose any more threat to the environment than their unmodified counterparts which have been widely sold in the United States.”

It is no surprise that the FDA approved the GloFish because the Bush administration is a big supporter of the development and proliferation of genetically-modified crops and animals. During a USDA agricultural expo in Sacramento in June 2003, the administration and bio-tech companies such Monsanto tried to push the gospel of genetically engineered food as a solution to world hunger.

Thousands of critics of biotech from throughout the country and world, including fishermen and farmers, protested the conference and held a week of alternative events, countering that hunger is caused by poverty and problems with food distribution infrastructure, not by lack of agricultural production.

They believe that biotech crops and fish would hurt rather than help the small farmers and local fishermen that supply most of the food in Africa, Latin America and Asia – and open a Pandora’s box of environmental disasters when genetically modified organisms are let loose upon the environment.

On the other hand, the California Fish and Game Commission decided to uphold the ban on transgenic fish on December after a heated 3 hour meeting. The seller of the GloFish, Yorktown Technologies in Austin, Texas, gushed with the marvels of these new fish, developed in the National University of Singapore research scientists to monitor water pollution.

“These zebrafish, with a bright red fluorescent color, are absolutely beautiful,” said Allen Blake, the CEO of Yorktown Technologies, as he showed the covers of the New York Times and aquarium enthusiast magazines to the audience and commission. “We believe that safety issues are important and have come to the unanimous conclusion that they are safe for the environment. The demand by the public will be extraordinary when we launch sales on January 5.”

He urged the Commission to adopt the exemption to a previous rule banning transgenic fish, with permits granted for medical and scientific research conforming to strict rules preventing them from escaping into the natural environment and spreading behind the laboratories.

Ed Pert of the DFG supported the exemption for the GloFish, claiming that there was little risk that they would establish themselves in the wild in California, as evidenced by that fact that no self-sustaining population of zebrafish has been established in California after being sold for 50 years.

“They are a tropical fish that is not cold tolerant enough to establish themselves in California. And the transgenic GloFish are slightly less temperature tolerant or about the same as the wild fish,” said Pert.

He also said that the GloFish were unlikely to present a toxic or allergenic risk to humans, just like the regular zebrafish.

However, Rebecca Spector, the West Coast Director of the Center of Food Safety, representing the Sierra Club, Institute for Fishery Resources and League of Women’s Voters, and Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, opposed the exemption.

“We don’t think the social good of fish for the aquarium outweighs the potential risks,” said Grader, who noted that the sale of the GloFish provides no medical research or scientific benefits. “We’re not talking about somebody on the verge of a cure to AIDS or cancer. We owe it to the environment to employ the precautionary principle. We have no way of knowing all of the risks right now. The peer review needs to be more than the 10 scientists that reviewed the exemption proposal for the DFG.”

He recommended that the applicant be asked to come back in 6 months to one year after the risks had been evaluated.

In the discussion by the Commissioners that followed, Commissioners Sam Schuchat and Robert Hattoy said that the issue was one of the most heavily lobbied that they had ever encountered on the Commission. During the heated debate, the question of the ethics of producing genetically engineered fish for pets came up repeatedly.

“I called my Rabbi and I became convinced to vote no on this issue,” Schuchat stated, “even though there is not much of a risk here to California’s environment. The question became an ethical question: Humans, to some extent, have been doing this for thousands of years. There are many possible benefits from bio-tech research.”

“However , at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s right to produce a new organism just to be a pet,” he concluded. “It’s not good to employ technology for a frivolous purposes. To me, it seems like an abuse of power.”

Commissioners Bob Hattoy and Jim Kellogg joined with Schuchat is opposing the GloFish permit. Hattoy recommended opposing the permit at the time – but encouraged Yorktown Technologies to come back one year later. “If our concerns prove to be wrong, Yorktown will have a giant market in California,” he said.

However, Commission President Mike Flores supported the Department’s recommendation that the permit be granted. “I’m pretty satisfied that there is no risk presented by the GloFish,” added Flores. “Yorktown did everything they were supposed to do. I think we should listen to the Department and take their recommendation. I’ll vote to support and be the lone soldier on this.”

Before they voted, Commissioner Kellogg commented that this was a question “of values, not science.” “I’m not opposed to more discussion, but we barely got the regulation in the books on genetically modified fish and now they want an exemption to it. The federal government has its eyes on the state to today and I’m going to vote no.”

The vote was 3 to 1, with only Flores opposing it.

The GloFish has become a very heated topic in the recreational fishing community, with some supporting the ban on Glo Fish and others opposing the Commission’s decision.

“The problem I had with the decision was the fact that 3 of the Commissioners totally ignored the science presented by the department and academia,” stated Randy Fry, Western Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. “I don’t care if they want to consult with their rabbi, massage therapist, Billy Graham or the Pope – I just don’t want to know about it. The Commission cannot be society’s moral and ethical cops. They must depend on what the science says.”

Fry makes some good points, particularly regarding the dragging of religion into the bio-tech debate. However, much of what the Commission rules on does indeed involve ethics, whether we like it or not. Fishing and hunting regulations are developed on “fair chase” and “fair catch” ethics just as much as they are on science. For example, to legally catch a salmon or other fish, it must “voluntarily” take it in the mouth: this is based on sportsmen’s ethics, not on science.

I support the Commission’s decision to uphold its stringent restrictions on transgenic fish. The approval of biologically engineered fish for non-medical and non-research purposes could open the flood gates to the approval of more transgenic fish.

One thing we don’t need in California is another exotic fish, genetically modified or otherwise; witness our current attempts to eliminate New Zealand mud snails and northern pike from the state’s waters. The Commission did the right thing by refusing to grant a permit for the sale of the first genetically engineered fish to be put on the market in the U.S.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: danielbacher@hotmail.com

 

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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