MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Will the Food and Drug Administration approve the first genetically modified animal for human consumption? The animal is a genetically engineered salmon that grows to market size twice as fast as conventional salmon. And the FDA will be holding public meetings about that fish starting on September 19th.
The company behind the salmon, AquaBounty Technologies, got a thumbs-up last week from a panel of FDA scientists. They concluded there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from this animal.
So what should we know about this fish and its future? Professor Anne Kapuscinski is a fisheries biologist at Dartmouth College. She has studied both endangered salmon and genetically modified fish. Welcome to the program.
Professor ANNE KAPUSCINSKI (Professor of Sustainability Science, Dartmouth College): Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And why don't you explain first how this salmon has been genetically modified to grow faster?
Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: The company that's developed these fish has inserted two genes. One gene is for growth hormone, and it's almost identical to the growth hormone gene that's already in these salmon.
And then the other gene acts like a little switch. It's a piece of DNA that comes from another fish, from the ocean pout, and it's normally connected to the gene that produces antifreeze protein in that fish.
In the case of these salmon, they've just taken the part of the DNA that acts like a switch, and that switch turns on the gene that produces the growth hormone so that the salmon will produce growth hormone in its tissues throughout the year, whereas a conventional salmon only produces growth hormone during the warmer times of the year, when the water temperatures are warmer.
BLOCK: So they end up growing to market size in, what, 18 months instead of three years.
Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: I think that's about right. It's about half the time.
BLOCK: When the FDA studies this genetically modified salmon to see whether it's safe to eat, what are they looking at? How do they make that decision?
Prof. KAPUSCINSKI: The FDA asked the company to present data on several issues. First of all, is the inserted gene safe for the health of the animal? Is the inserted gene and the growth hormone it's producing safe for humans to eat the fish? And third, will the farming of these fish have any effects on the environment?
They are not required to conclude that they're environmentally safe, and that's the only condition under which to approve them. That law just requires an environmental assessment, basically figuring out what would be the effect on the quality of the human environment.
Dead zones increased dramatically in U.S. waters over the past 50 years, threatening ecosystems and fisheries nationwide, according to a sweeping report Friday by the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The multiagency assessment said that incidents of hypoxia — a condition in which oxygen levels drop so low that fish and other animals are stressed or killed — have risen nearly 30-fold since 1960 due in part to man-made pollutants.
It called for renewed efforts to reduce water pollutants that lead to low levels of dissolved oxygen and improve strategies to protect marine food sources.
A dead zone in San Diego Bay, first documented in the 1980s, was part of the analysis. Scientists have used it for years as an example of an oxygen-starved area where runoff from cities contributes to hypoxic conditions.
“There are reasons to worry about San Diego Bay, but hypoxia hasn’t been studied as rigorously here as it has in other places like the Chesapeake Bay, where it is a much bigger problem,” said Brian Hentschel, a biology professor at San Diego State University who studies bottom-dwelling organisms such as worms, clams and shrimps.
He hopes Friday’s national assessment spurs more funding for local research that tracks dissolved oxygen and related factors across San Diego Bay over time.
“That report should trigger some alarm bells because it’s pretty clear that the human impacts that create hypoxic conditions have been increasing,” Hentschel said. “More detailed data now will make it easier 15 or 20 years from now to know how the bay is changing.”
Dead zones were detected in nearly half of the 647 waterways assessed. On the West Coast, federal researchers found a sixfold increase in the number of dead zones over the past 20 years, with 37 areas now suffering from low oxygen. A region off the coast of Oregon and Washington has become the second-largest seasonal hypoxic region in the United States and third largest in the world.
Friday’s report said work to study and control pollutants are advancing but management efforts to stem the tide of hypoxia “have not made significant headway” in part due to increased development and population growth in coastal watersheds.
“If current practices are continued, the expansion of hypoxia in coastal waters will continue and increase in severity, leading to further impacts on marine habitats, living resources, economies, and coastal communities,” the report’s authors said.
California lawmakers have rejected a bill seeking to ban plastic shopping bags after a contentious debate over whether the state was going too far in trying to regulate personal choice.
The Democratic bill, which failed late Tuesday, would have been the first statewide ban, although a few California cities already prohibit their use.
The measure offered California an opportunity to emerge at the forefront of a global trend, said Sen. Gil Cedillo, who carried the measure on the Senate floor.
"If we don't solve this problem today, if we don't create a statewide standard, if we don't provide the leadership that is being called for, others will," the Los Angeles Democrat said during Tuesday evening's debate.
Discouraging plastic bag use through fees or bans first gained traction outside of the U.S. in nations such as South Africa, Ireland, China and Bangladesh. In January, Washington, D.C., implemented a 5-cent surcharge on disposable paper and plastic bags.
A handful of California cities already ban single-use plastic bags, after San Francisco became the first to do so in 2007.
Palo Alto, Malibu and Fairfax in Marin County have since followed, while a ban approved in Manhattan Beach is tied up in litigation, said Matthew King, a spokesman for Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based nonprofit that sponsored AB1998.
Supporters of the bill said the 19 billion plastic bags state residents use every year harm the environment and cost the state $25 million annually to collect and transport to landfills. It had been the subject of a furious lobbying campaign by the plastic bag manufacturing industry, which called it a job killer.
The bill's author, Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Santa Monica, said lawmakers had failed Californians by defeating the measure. But she said the movement to ban plastic bags would continue despite the setback.
The bill's main opponent, the Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, spent millions in lobbying fees, radio ads and even a prime-time television ad attacking the measure. The organization represents plastic bag manufacturers such as Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil Corp.
Last year, it helped defeat an effort by Seattle to impose a 20-cent fee on the use of plastic or paper grocery bags.