Not such fishy business

Peter Shyba makes the case for new genetically-engineered salmon

The fervour of the genetically engineered (GE) animals debate was reignited by the American Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) hearings on September 20. These hearings are deciding whether or not Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies should be allowed to sell its GE Salmon, which it calls “AquAdvantage Salmon.” These salmon, which normally only grow in the summer, have had a “promoter sequence” attached to their DNA that allows them to grow through the winter months, bringing them to market size in nearly half normal the time. The fish, which would be sterile and bred in tanks on land, would have little risk of escape or interbreeding with wild fish populations. As Elliot Entis, co-founder of AquaBounty, explains simply, “It’s like improving the mileage in your car.”

While the FDA has already approved the use of cloned animals in agriculture, this would be the first approval of a GE animal in American history. In an avalanche of rhetoric, wealthy activists and liberal college students alike have vocally declared that approval of AquaBounties Salmon would be opening Pandora’s box: plans for a less-polluting pig (dubbed “enviropigs” by University of Guelph researchers) are already in the works.

The idea of this salmon being the only product firmly keeping Pandora’s box shut is interesting, as fish have indeed become a hot topic amongst food commentators in the United States and Canada. It would seem recent, apocalyptical reports of the world running out of fish by 2050 have been the impetus for their commentary.

At last fall’s General Assembly, Greenpeace McGill brought forth a resolution to ban “red-list” fish from being sold in the Shatner building. The “red list,” organized by SeaChoice, is a detailed list of fish separated into three categories: “Best-choice, some concerns, and avoid.” Interestingly, SeaChoice, a Canadian sustainable seafood organization, lists wild Pacific salmon under the “some concerns” category, specifically labelling Fraser River sockeye salmon under “worse alternatives.” In reality, the Fraser River had near record levels of Sockeye salmon in 2010, even prompting British Columbia fish population researcher Barry Rosenberg to say, “Eat some, catch some, or buy some – it’s a great opportunity.” It doesn’t sound like there is much need for “some concern” there.

The international fishing and aquaculture industry is now conservatively estimated to be worth almost $250 billion worldwide, and in many areas is the only viable industry. Knowing this sheds some light onto how contentious of an issue genetically-modified salmon has become. Ruth Salmon, of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance said in a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, “Our industry does not support producing GMO salmon for human consumption…we are not interested in it at all.”

As one of the most profitable industries in B.C. (the world’s fourth largest producer of salmon), a product which can effectively grow in half the time to a higher gross weight and likely at lower cost is understandably threatening. Along with the economic threat, B.C. interest groups like the First Nations Fishery Council have good reason to be against GE salmon. The first nations in that area have survived off of wild salmon for thousands of years. The difference between then and now, however, is an in increase in population of about 3,500 per cent and a globalized economy demanding their product.

Whether activists realize it or not, GE food has become an integral part of our diet and an undeniable method of both increasing crop size and decreasing crop disease. Up to 75 per cent of the processed foods we eat in North America already contain genetically modified ingredients, and genetically engineered products are now as being used by the Gates Foundation as a method to increase crop yield for food-scarce African nations.

We have two options. The first is to accept that the world’s food supply is going to have to become more flexible to accommodate a rising population and embrace genetically engineered foods. The second and more difficult is to come to terms with is the fact that the age of plenty is over and reduce global food intake, especially in developing nations like China who are eating more meat as they become wealthier.

With that being said, there is a glaring problem with the approval process. Genetically-engineered foods are not obligated to be labeled as such, effectively leaving consumers in the dark. I would argue that if the product was extraordinary enough to need approval by the FDA, there would certainly be need for an accurate GE label. Should the consumers then decide that it’s not for them, that is their prerogative. Consumer hesitation to purchase an item labeled as “genetically engineered” might just be the victory which those against the AquAdvantage salmon have been fishing for.

So let’s forget about a Pandora’s box of genetic modification; it has been open for a long time and will remain that way. If used properly and safely, GE foods could bring some balance to food instability. If you don’t want to eat it, then don’t; if you are merely against technology for technology’s sake, well then write me an opinion letter from Walden.