Field of Science

They engineered a better salmon, so why can't I eat it?

What happened to genetically modified salmon? A few months back I was looking forward to my first taste of the new AquaBounty salmon, which grows to maturity twice as fast as wild salmon. Will it taste just as good? Better? I thought I'd know soon. But then politics intervened.

It's almost always bad when politicians meddle in science. Usually they do so because they just don't like what they're hearing, as they have done time after time with global warming. Now it's genetically modified salmon. What happened? The FDA was ready to approve the new salmon until two weeks ago, when Congressman Don Young from Alaska, under heavy lobbying pressure from the Alaskan fisheries industry, simply stepped in to block it. The FDA had already found that the fish was safe to eat, but hadn't yet issued final approval. So Congressman Young and his pals decided to pass legislation to halt the process.

I wrote about AquaBounty's salmon last year, when the FDA was holding hearings to approve it for human consumption. Ironically, the FDA doesn't get to approve genetically modified crops, and our food supply is filled with GM corn, soy, and other plants. But thanks to the vagaries of U.S. law, the FDA gets to weigh in on salmon.

The science is pretty cool: AquaBounty took two genes from other fish and added them to Atlantic salmon. They added a growth gene from Pacific Chinook salmon, and another gene from a fish called ocean pout (Trisopterus luscus). Together, these genes allow AquaBounty's new salmon, called AquAdvantage ®, to grow to maturity in 18 months rather than 3 years. This promises to make salmon farming much more efficient, if we ever allow it.

Better fish farming is incredibly important for the future of wild fish on our planet. Wild fish populations have plunged 90-99% all over the planet, and many fish populations have been completely wiped out. Here on the east coast of North America, wild cod populations completely crashed in the 1990s, and by 2004 the World Wildlife Fund predicted that wild cod would disappear completely in 15 years. The situation isn't any better for Atlantic salmon, which are at "perilously low levels." The U.S. declared Atlantic salmon an endangered species in 2000, and added more salmon populations to the endangered list in 2009.

The solution, obviously, is to farm our fish, just like we do with every other food we eat. As I wrote last year:
"We farm all the other animals that we eat. Imagine that we only ate wild cows, or chicken, or pigs. The human race can't be fed by wild animals alone - we're too numerous and too hungry. Sooner or later, we will drive wild fish to extinction, unless we make the switch to farmed fish."
To make fish farming more efficient, we need to apply new genetic technologies to increase yields the way we have with our crops and with domesticated animals.

These new salmon are nothing to be afraid of, but anti-GMO activists have labelled them "Frankenfish" as a transparent scare tactic. I'm neither a fan nor an opponent GMO foods, but knee-jerk opposition to all GMOs doesn't make any sense. Modifying crops to make them more resistant to pesticides, as Big Agriculture firms (Monsanto in particular) have done, strikes me as a terrible use of the technology. "Roundup Ready" corn and soy allow Monsanto to sell more of their herbicide, and make farmers dependent on it. If anti-GMO forces want to boycott this type of genetically modified organism, I'm on their side.

But not with salmon. AquaBounty salmon doesn't promote the use of pesticides or other industrial chemicals. It just makes salmon farming more efficient. The genes added to the salmon are naturally-occurring ones from other fish, so they are still 100% fish. (In contrast, GM crops have genes injected into them from bacteria and other foreign species.) Furthermore, the farming operations by AquaBounty are all inland farms, so there's almost zero chance of the fish escaping into the wild. (I went to one of the FDA hearings last fall and heard a detailed description of the farms.) And even if they did escape, it wouldn't matter because the AquAdvantage salmon are sterile, and couldn't breed with wild fish.

Despite these facts, environmental organizations such as Food and Water Watch are waging a campaign to "Stop Frankenfish,", and spreading misinformation about the science. I was particularly disappointed by the comments from the Union of Concerned Scientists at last September's FDA hearing. Jane Rissler from the UCS compared GM salmon to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a ridiculous bit of overstatement. I thought the UCS were the good guys! I agree with their stances on many issues, but they do not speak for me on this one.

I can't resist pointing out that Republicans such as Alaska's Rep. Young claim to hate regulation, and favor the free market - except when they don't. Here we have Young stepping in and imposing regulation to halt the free market under pressure from lobbyists. Not surprisingly, Young is joined by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, but his efforts are also supported by Democratic Senator Patty Murray from Washington, who also has a salmon industry to protect. As happens all too often, politicians are in favor of science only when they agree with it. They're all too happy to pass laws on behalf of special interests, even if it goes against with their supposed political positions on government regulation.

Sadly, environmentalists who oppose GM salmon don't seem to realize that they are acting against their own interests. The same is true of the fishing industry. If they win, the result will be the eventual extinction of many wild fish species, with unpredictable consequences for the ocean's ecosystem. The arguments about the threat posed by GM salmon haven't stood up to scientific scrutiny, so these groups have turned to politics instead. It looks like they might win, in the short term. But if we insist on taking so many of the ocean's fish for our dinner plates, the wild fish will soon be gone.

5 comments:

  1. That's really sad! I wish the anti-GMO activists would take the time to check their science instead of getting too busy spreading fear and ignorance. I love eating salmon and I feel guilty eating them.

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  2. I'm a little bewildered by your sympathies with the crop anti-GMOs stance. That Monsanto genetically controls its seed for anticompetitive measures is only one argument, albeit valid. That agribusinesses, in collaboration with humanitarian efforts, use genetic modification to feed the world's hungry (by selectively breeding drought- and disease-resistant crops, for example) is hardly a "terrible use of the technology". Not to mention the ludicrous scientific and health-based claims by the anti-GMO movement that humans magically integrate the modified DNA of consumed GMO foods (crops or fish).

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  3. Gingi: I specifically referred to using GM technology to create herbicide-resistant crops as a bad way to use it. Breeding drought- and disease-resistant crops (your examples) is terrific. It's too bad Monsanto has give the anti-GMO crowd such an easy target by using the technology to sell more RoundUp.

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  4. A recent study released by the International Journal of Biological Sciences found that Monsanto's GM Corn causes liver and kidney damage in lab rats. Monsanto only released the raw data after a legal challenge from Greenpeace, the Swedish Board of Agriculture, and French anti- GM campaigners. I'm sure the corn is fine to feed to our cattle or eat ourselves though. Right?

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  5. I think the reason is that we don't trust agribusiness to have our health as a factor in their decision making. They have one thing that factors into decision making: profit. Public health isn't their purview. Monsanto's round-up ready corn is a case in point. Ergo - people don't trust them.

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