Not any more

Canadians on centre stage at controversial biotech livestock conference

In Canada on September 29, 2010 at 19:35

OTTAWA — Way back in 1982, the scientists responsible for the creation of the first genetically engineered animal knew there would be no appetite to eat their supermouse, but they realized their special critter would help researchers create GE fish and livestock that could one day end up on dinner plates.

"People thought we were just embryologists and like embryologists do, just experiment around," University of Pennsylvania’s Ralph Brinster said in an interview.

But when an article came out in the preeminent science journal Nature, "it just catalyzed the scientific community and the general public. They realized that something big had happened," said Brinster.

Garth Fletcher of Memorial University’s Ocean Sciences Centre was one of the scientists who took note of the breakthrough, and today stands at the centre of a storm as efforts to transform genetically engineered salmon created in his laboratory into the first GE animal approved for human consumption come to a head.

And along with the work of University of Guelph’s Cecil Forsberg — who created a transgenic pig and shares ambitions to bring the pig to market — these pioneering projects, supported by $1.28 million from Canada’s natural sciences granting council since 2000, are being showcased Thursday at the first-ever biotechnology livestock conference in South Dakota, hosted by an industry hoping to be on the precipice of something huge.

The scientists and industry executives behind these animals admit a more forceful public-relations campaign is needed to allay people’s concerns about eating fish and livestock with a genetic profile engineered to either grow faster (salmon), to reduce waste (pig) or fight diseases (prion-free cows resistant to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease).

But they say their genetically engineered animals are very similar to regular livestock or fish, with an added bonus of addressing human or environmental problems, such as feeding the world with diminished wild fish stocks or combating livestock diseases.

But some consumer and environmental groups aren’t buying it and are ramping up their campaign — now that the lengthy approval process in the United States is near completion for salmon engineered in Prince Edward Island by AquaBounty Technologies Inc. to grow twice as fast using technology developed by Fletcher’s team at Memorial.

The critics say credible and independent scientific data just aren’t available to prove these animals are safe for human health or the environment. Besides, they say, the regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada charged with assessing theses applications behind closed doors just aren’t up to the job of conducting proper assessments of GE animals.

"The main fraud is the idea that they are not much different than other things, and since the authorities are taking that for granted, from a consumer point of view, there’s still good reasons to be fearful," said Charles Tanguay, spokesman for Quebec’s leading consumer group, Union des Consommateurs. "And it is totally unacceptable that there would be no mandatory labelling."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already stated earlier this month that the GE salmon is safe for human consumption, and the agency is now assessing feedback from its panel of veterinary scientists before issuing a final decision.

The panel last week said the agency should be rigorous in its evaluation, given the precedent-setting decision before the regulator, likely to pave the way for other approvals in North America.

Getting this far has been a long time coming.

Fletcher first met with the FDA in 1994, and it took the agency years to decide to assess AquaBounty’s GE salmon application as a new animal drug, even though "clearly we weren’t making a drug," said Fletcher.

"The big issue here is no prior case of doing a regulatory case for a GE animal. They didn’t have anything," said Fletcher.

The challenge now for the industry is convincing the public that GE animal technology is both safe for people and beneficial for animal health, says Jerry Pommer, a key conference organizer and an executive with Hematech Inc. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, currently developing cattle that can produce human antibodies to help in the treatments of viral or bacterial infections, autoimmune disorders and other medical conditions in people.

"When it comes to genetically engineering animals, I think people tend to be more pushed back than they (were) with the GE crops. When they hear genetically engineering of animals, they think we’re doing something that is dramatically changing the physical appearance of these animals to where they’re frankenfood. There is so much misinformation that’s out there," said Pommer, highlighting the GE animals on display at the biotech livestock conference.

"The animals are there just to let people see and feel and touch and realize that these pigs still look like pigs, they still act like pigs, and so think that’s a message that the stakeholders in GE animals need to get out to the public — genetic modification has a benefit to society, whether it’s human, animal health or for our animal welfare," said Pommer.

Pat Howard, a specialist in biotechnologies and public policy at Simon Fraser University, says it’s imprudent to downplay the significance of manipulating genes in animals destined for human consumption. But that’s what the FDA and Health Canada did when they rejected special regulatory processes for GE crops and animals to determine whether there are effects or disturbances in the way proteins are expressed, said Howard.

"The regulatory agencies in both the U.S. and Canada came back and said, ‘No, no, we feel that the genetically engineered stuff, as long as it appears to be more or less the same, we will treat it as substantially equivalent or generally regarded as safe. That’s your base problem here. We’ve got in place a regulatory system that never accepted the idea that we needed a special system to deal with the special effects of the process. They only want to look at the product — are the products substantially equivalent — not the process," said Howard.

In the short term, the FDA will have to assess key submissions tabled last week during special hearings into the GE salmon. The Consumers Union and the Centre for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C., told the agency that AquaBounty uses faulty methodology to downplay any food safety concerns.

After the FDA reaches a decision, consumers are going to have to make their own assessment sooner or later, with Guelph’s GE pig application winding its way through the FDA and Health Canada.

For Brinster, one of the scientists behind the creation of the supermouse, the first transgenic animal, he wouldn’t balk at eating GE animals.

"I don’t think there’s any problem with eating them," said Brinster.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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