Eric Hallerman of Blacksburg, Va., head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment discusses the current status of developing and regulating genetically modified animals in a commentary published by the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology, a non-government organization devoted to informing elected officials and the public on emerging issues in agriculture.

“Genetic engineering is a powerful tool for understanding the function of individual genes within a whole animal,” explained Hallerman. Genetic engineering of animals can extend to a large variety of uses, such as improvement of animal health against disease, production of products for human therapeutic use, development of animal models for research, and even simple enrichment of animal interactions with humans (e.g., genetically altered fluorescent GloFish®). Hallerman’s work with the council concerns food production from genetically engineered animals.

The commentary discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the current regulatory process conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approving the production of genetically modified animals. Hallerman and his colleagues acknowledge many of the reservations that people have to the current regulatory process, most notably the lack of sufficient plans to deal with a potential breach of containment by a genetically modified animal. Overall, however, the commentary concludes, “forgoing access to [genetic engineering] technology may jeopardize future access to improved genetic lines resulting from new technological developments.”

There is still a great deal of consternation among various groups and organizations over genetic engineering. The two issues that most often spring up with regards to genetically modified animal production are whether the animal safe to eat and whether they are safe for the environment.

“Genetic engineering is highly controversial, and rightly so,” said Hallerman. “But some of the arguments being put forward are nonsense. In writing the commentary, we wanted to bring the debate to a scientific level by laying out what is scientifically based and what is not.”

The FDA is soon expected to approve limited-scale production of AquaBounty Technologies’ AquAdvantage Salmon, which the commentary uses as a case study for regulation of genetic engineering. An Atlantic salmon expressing a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene, the animal has the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. If approved for production, the decision would constitute the FDA’s first approval for production of genetically modified animals for food.

As part of the promotion for the commentary, as well as a push for greater awareness of issues pertaining to genetic engineering, Hallerman gave three talks in Washington, D.C. (at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Diverse Voices in Agriculture” series; at the a National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research’s “Lunch ‘n Learn” seminar; at the International Food Information Council), as well as an interview with the Agritalk radio program. “There is a great need to educate Congressional staff, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, and others, about the issues regarding genetic engineering of animals, focusing especially on the GE salmon.”

Despite the limited education about genetic engineering and the controversy surrounding it, Hallerman sees a very strong future for the field, with no signs of slowing down. “Production of genetically engineered plants is now commonplace in most countries. Production of genetically engineered animals will become more common as well, although it will require effective confinement of the animals for species where escape and interbreeding with wild populations is at issue.”

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