The Frankenfish Should Be a Wake-Up Call
Last month at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions Conference , the emergence of genetically modified salmon on the U.S. market was a matter of great debate. After three days of listening to speakers and chatting with colleagues, what stood out most to me was that we have a major disconnect when it comes to informing the public in this country, with companies touting “innovation” on one hand, environmentalists crying foul on the other, and consumers in the middle with no one–certainly not the government–looking out for them, or giving them honest, unbiased information.
In other words, hey, FDA, if genetically modified salmon is perfectly safe for human consumption, why can’t I know which salmon are genetically modified? The answer, of course, is that the genetically modified salmon people would probably have to worry about their business model if they had a big GMO label slapped on their product, but why should their business be more worth protecting than the public’s rights, or the environment?
Part of the problem is figuring out which food labels make sense for the most stakeholders. “What do we do, label products with the most dire environmental impact? Or use labels that consumers are most likely to respond to, or that consumers tell us they want? Or do we go with the labels that businesses can most easily make money off of?” Jason J. Czarneszki, law professor at the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School, asked a crowd of journalists in Monterey.
These are the questions the government is grappling with, unsuccessfully, with each agency passing the buck to the next. The FTC is supposed to deal with labeling, but they’re fond of declining to step into an area–like food–where another government agency has authority. And while the FDA can say whether a food product is or isn’t safe for consumers, they have no labeling authority, which is why in the case of genetically modified salmon, they’re throwing up their hands and saying they can allow it to market but they can’t require that it be labeled.
“They can, they just don’t want to,” Dr. Urvashi Rangan, direct of technical policy for Consumers Union says. “It’s a real problem, because every time we ask consumers, the majority say they want GE and GMO to be noted on labels, so it’s always strange to hear the discomfort federal agencies have with it.”
But the labeling issue is just one part of the information problem. Even before we get to the issue of GMO salmon, most people still don’t understand the difference between farmed and wild salmon. In a completely unscientific study, the majority of people I asked over the weekend thought farmed fish was probably better for the environment than wild-caught fish. In the lion’s share of cases that’s not true, but the public is given little to no credible, easily digested information on the matter (for the record: fish farms often erode marine environments, harm biodiversity, and introduce hormones, antibiotics and disease into waterways). Before the public has even begun to wrap its collective head around what “farmed fish” really means, it is just about to surpass wild-caught.
The story of salmon is yet another cautionary tale about what happens when humans mess with nature. The demise of wild salmon stocks has led to a surge in farmed salmon, which has in turn bred a situation wherein the frankenfish GMO salmon seems like an okay idea. Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, points out that salmon used to be wild-caught on the east coast. “People have totally lost that memory, but they were initially knocked out by dams–not big ones like the ones on the West coast that you want to fight, but thousands of tiny ones,” he says. “Connecticut is a tiny state, but it has 5,000 dams. Connecticut’s chi is totally blocked! And those dams knocked out salmon runs throughout east coast.”
Habitat destruction accounts for part of the problem, but then there’s over-fishing, a problem that can largely be traced to the post-World War II period. “Europe was hungry and war technology could suddenly be applied against fish,” Greenberg explains. “In the 1940s and 1950s, Faroe Island fisherman found a spot near Greenland where all the Atlantic salmon go. As soon as they identified that patch of water, they fished it hard. They told their friends in Denmark and Norway and pretty soon there was a lot of pressure on Atlantic salmon.”
Overfishing and dams have also put pressure on West coast salmon and now Bristol Bay, Alaska is home to one of the last giant wild salmon runs in the country. Unfortunately it’s also the proposed site of the Pebble Mine, which would mine copper at the headwaters. Salmon navigating using their sense of smell, and two parts per billion of copper in the water would be enough to mess with that sense, severely impacting the salmon run. The mine is said to be worth $300 billion, but how do you put a price on one of the last natural salmon runs?
The other side of the story has to do with farmed salmon. The first attempts at farming salmon go back to the 1400s. Salmon eggs are big and nutrient rich, so when they hatch, they have some nutrition to live on, which makes it relatively easy to transition a larval salmon onto industrial feed pellets. As time went on, fish farmers began to breed for traits like feed efficiency, and by the 1960s and 1970s what started to emerge was a sort of farmed sub-species. “They doubled the efficiency of salmon and doubled it again,” Greenberg says. “And efficient farmed salmon got cheap.”
Now we have not only overfishing, habitat destruction, and aquaculture, but also technological advances that have enabled the creation of genetically engineered salmon. The U.S. company AquaBounty grows and filets its genetically engineered salmon in Panama, then ship it back for U.S. consumers, thus avoiding having to do an environmental impact report on its aquaculture practices. Without intervention, and it looks as though there won’t be any, the AquaAdvantage salmon will simply be labeled Atlantic salmon. Rather than provide a cheap protein for the poor, Greenberg says AquaBounty is likely to use the technology to control salmon farming. “Should salmon farming come to be dominated by the AquAdvantage fish, farmers could become dependent on a single company for their stock, just as soy, corn, and wheat farmers must now rely on large multinationals like Monsanto to provide seed for their fields year in and year out,” he wrote in a recent essay.
Which has me wondering, when are we going to figure out that trying to own or engineer nature tends to have dire, unintended consequences? Monsanto’s infamous “Round-Up Ready” seeds have already sparked the emergence of so-called “superweeds” resistant to herbicides, and the emergence of unaccounted for hybrids (created when the genetically engineered RoundUp Ready genes are transferred to wild plants by pollen). We’re just now finding out…or being told…about the diseases caused by the various chemicals we’ve used to try to dominate nature. Our obsession with antibacterials has created a superbug. And now we’re embarking on a journey with genetically engineered animals, which we plan to feed to people without telling them–probably poor people because that’s how these things always go–and then just hope for the best, even though we know better.
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