One fish, two fish, red fish, glofish?

Feature story - 20 January, 2004
The biotechnology industry has struggled for the last twenty years to come up with products that work, and propaganda to sell those products. Remember the FlavrSavr tomato, the first genetically engineered (GE) food product designed to ripen on the vine, yet stay firm all the way to market? Well, it hardly lasted the first truck ride across the country, as it really wasn't all that squash proof.

Glofish may be the first genetically engineered pets but with no rules to control them who knows what will happen?

Then, as consumers around the world rejected newer GE food crops, likeUS maize, the biotech industry came up with a novel propagandacampaign. They are now spending millions of dollars to convince us thatGE is an essential technology for feeding poor people in the developingworld (never mind that most of the GE crops currently grown are used tofeed animals, not humans).

The latest GE product to hit the shelves illuminates the fact thatthis technology has little to do with feeding people. Genetic engineershave made a zebra fish that glows in the dark - the GloFish. Of course,we wouldn't be surprised to hear the GE industry claim that GloFishwill feed the world, revolutionise pet ownership, and help find carkeys lost in dark aquariums the world over...

What's all the fuss about a little aquarium fish?

Genetically engineered organisms are novel creatures - they've neverbefore existed on the planet. We have no way of predicting what havocthey will cause when they are released into the wild. Scientists havestudied what other GE fish species might do and their conclusions areworrying - depending on the fish, GE varieties could invade ecosystems,threaten populations of native species, or cause other unpredictabledamage. Aquarium fish get introduced into native ecosystems all thetime, and can survive in the warmer waters of some springs and aroundindustrial wastewater pipes, so this really is no laughing matter. Anyescape would be irreversible - the escaped fish could not be recalledlike a supermarket product can be recalled.

ToddGrischke, fisheries supervisor at the Michigan Department of NaturalResources, likened genetically engineered fish to an invasive species."You threaten entire ecosystems," he said. "You don't know how thosenew animals are going to behave in the wild. They could cause ouroriginal stocks to die off. They could be susceptible to diseaseoutbreaks. They could change their life cycle patterns. Who knows?"

California has recently banned the sale of GloFish in the state.Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Schuchat explained the decision thisway: "Creating a novelty pet is a frivolous use of this technology. Nomatter how low the risk is, there needs to be a public benefit that ishigher than this."

But is it a fish or is it a drug?

Amazing as it may seem, there is no agency of the US Government thatconsiders itself responsible for evaluating the risks of GE aquariumfish. A few years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA)announced that they would regulate such fish as animal drugs. But whenthe company selling the fish, Yorktown Technologies, submitted a NewAnimal Drug Application to the US-FDA this year for GloFish approval,the agency backed away from its claim to regulate aquarium fish anddeclined to consider the application stating that the fish was not adrug. (Those bureaucrats clearly have a firm grasp on the obvious).

Forget for a moment the absurdity of regulating an aquarium fish asa drug. Regulatory agencies sometimes make bizarre definitional leapsin order to use already existing laws to regulate completely newproducts - like glow-in-the-dark zebra fish. What the FDA decisionmeans is that the fish is now being sold in stores in the US withabsolutely no review of its potential to cause damage to theenvironment. In deciding not to regulate the fish, the US-FDA hascreated a regulatory vacuum of immense proportions - there is now nofederal agency responsible for assessing whether these fish, or anyfuture genetically engineered pets, may pose environmental or otherproblems.

"Not to make a pun, but I think it's shedding a light on seriousregulatory and safety issues that are not getting much attention," saidArt Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University ofPennsylvania. "This is going to be a very important issue. The fish isjust the first wave on the beach."

On January 14, 2004, the Center for Food Safety and the Center forTechnology Assessment filed a lawsuit against the US Food and DrugAdministration and its parent agency, the US Department of Health andHuman Services, to block the sale of the GloFish. The lawsuitrepresents the first-ever legal action seeking to block the sale of agenetically engineered animal. The lawsuit also asks the court todecide that the US-FDA must regulate genetically engineered pets.

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