Kevin Wells has been genetically engineering animals for 24 years.
“It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Wells recently as he walked through his lab at the University of Missouri - Columbia. “You take DNA apart and put it back together in different orders, different orientations.”
And this work is humming along at the University of Missouri, which has three research centers devoted to studying genetics in animals. Scientists here are creating pigs, mice and rats that could, among other things, be resistant to swine flu or produce their own nutrients so they don’t have to be included in their diet.
Still, as straightforward as he makes it sound, Wells knows his work is controversial.
“When I was at USDA [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], we made cattle that were resistant to staph aureus mastitis,” he said, recalling his work as a grad student in the 1990s. “It’s not very often that you get to say you cured a disease. But because of the fear of public perception, those animals, no one’s even attempted to take them to market.”
Wells has even gotten death threats based on what might come out of his lab. Opponents argue there are too many risks and too many unknowns associated with GE animals. They’ve got questions about animal welfare, food safety, human health impacts, whether these animals could escape, spread diseases and the list goes on.
Over the last year or so, at least 20 states have introduced bills that would require labeling of genetically modified food. Some of these proposed laws – including one in Missouri – take aim specifically at genetically engineered meat or fish.
But while genetically modified grains may be part of an animal's diet, there are no genetically engineered animals on the market for human consumption.
“The rumor mill suggests there is one genetically engineered tilapia that is available for consumption in Cuba,” Wells said. “But no, there are none approved in Europe for human consumption and there are none approved in the United States for consumption. There is a genetically engineered goat that has been approved for FDA [the Food and Drug Administration] to produce a pharmaceutical in its milk. But that is not for human consumption.”
However, the GE waters are now churning when it comes to salmon -- and Wells has played a key role.
The FDA is considering whether to allow a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon on the U.S. market. Wells was one of three scientists selected to be on the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee that evaluated this so-called “AquAdvantage” salmon for the FDA.
The GE salmon, which a company called AquaBounty first submitted its application for 17 years ago, feeds year-round and therefore grows faster than conventional salmon.
“So it reaches market weight in about a year-and-a-half as opposed to three years,” Wells said. “And it does that on 80 percent of the feed.”
The eggs for the GE salmon are now being produced in Canada. Then they are shipped to a plant in Panama where the fish are raised and processed. The FDA issued a preliminary ruling in December that the GE salmon is as safe as conventional Atlantic salmon and that there would be no harmful environmental impacts.
Yet, Wells said, the FDA has received thousands of comments opposing the GE salmon. But he said he weeded through them and couldn’t find a scientific basis to any of them. Still, he said he understands the public’s fears of genetically engineered animals.
“There are risks associated with everything every time we eat anything, whether it’s from a factory farm or it’s from an organic producer down the street,” he said. “There are risks associated with it. And again this is new. So it’s difficult for people."
The public has until April 26 to weigh in on the AquAdvantage salmon. If the FDA gives its approval, the fish could then be imported and sold at grocery stores across the US.
Whether states mandate labels or not, the FDA said that if it approves the GE salmon, it will issue “guidance” on labeling for all genetically engineered animals for human consumption.
~Abbie Fentress Swanson is a reporter for Harvest Public Media.