Troubled waters: flourescent fish spark GM row (4/5/2004)

"By not stepping in to regulate these fish, the FDA is establishing a dangerous precedent for all future gene-altered animals, whether created as food or pet fads."

Troubled waters: flourescent fish spark GM row
By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
The Independent, 04 May 2004

A glow-in-the-dark fish sounds like something that would go down a treat at a party for five-year-olds. It is also the latest faultline in the ideological battle over genetically modified organisms.

A fluorescent zebra fish, known by its trademarked name GloFish, has been on sale in the United States since the beginning of the year and, thanks to the movie Finding Nemo, has enjoyed robust sales.

GloFish genetically modified with jellyfish glow green, while those mixed with coral genes have a reddish hue when exposed to black or fluorescent light. At $5 a pop, they are more than five times as expensive as non-glowing zebra fish. What makes them politically contentious, however, is the fact that they are the world's first genetically engineered species to be made commercially available.

According to the company creating and marketing them, a Texas biotech firm called Yorktown Technologies, GloFish are safe, and the US government's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees. But campaigners concerned about the unknown effects of genetically modified animals say the GloFish is a test case and that if it is not subject to regulation it could open the floodgates to all manner of genetic horrors in the future.

"Allowing the unregulated sale of GloFish provides a gateway for genetically engineered fish to find their way on to our dinner plates and into our environment," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Washington-based Centre for Food Safety.

"By not stepping in to regulate these fish, the FDA is establishing a dangerous precedent for all future gene-altered animals, whether created as food or pet fads."

Nowhere has the battle been more keenly joined than in California, where the state Fish and Game Commission decided in December to ban the sale or import of GloFish, following the example of Japan and Singapore. As the richest agricultural state in the nation, California has always been highly sensitive to the danger of importing crop diseases or other rogue elements that could compromise its food supply.

There are signs, however, that lobbying is causing a change of heart, and last month the Fish and Game Commission voted to take another look at the GloFish question. The commissioner Jim Kellogg admitted that nobody had lobbied him harder on this than his wife Lynn, who owns a 60-gallon aquarium and loves brightly coloured fish. She "ripped me apart", Mr Kellogg told reporters.

GloFish were originally developed at the National University in Singapore in an experiment designed to detect water pollution. The idea was that the zebra fish would glow in the presence of toxins such as heavy metals. It was Yorktown Technologies that spotted their potential as pets. The FDA raised no objection, arguing that since the GloFish were not destined to enter the human food chain they were harmless. Yorktown is careful on its website to point out that GloFish are not intended for any other use except as aquarium pets.

The Centre for Food Safety and others argue that there is no way of knowing what might happen to the fish once they are sold. And GloFish are just the start. Among the GM experiments that could soon become commercial propositions are hens that produce anti-carcinogenic eggs, goats whose milk never goes off and cats with non-allergenic fur.

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