Against the Current


Every so often a “news” item appears that gets the most important facts so upside down one is reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s comment that   “… nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle” (Thomas Jefferson, June 11 1807, letter to John Norvell). The May 20 article in the Washington Post gives us a contemporary example that once again reaffirms the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

The occasion is the imminent “threat” of increased availability of a nutritious, healthy, safe food with a lower carbon footprint and reduced environmental impact compared to competing products. It’s difficult to make that out from the article, but we’re talking about transgenic, or “genetically modified (GM)” salmon.

The offending piece in the Washington Post opens with an assertion that does violence to reality stating, “In the absence of a federal law requiring labels for genetically modified food…”. What’s wrong with this statement?

To begin with, virtually every food item that appears on a plate anywhere in the world is, quite literally, “genetically modified.”  With domesticated crops and livestock this should be self evident — little or none of it looks like it’s wild or ancestral counterparts — I’ll bet my children’s college tuition funds that fewer than one in a hundred people would recognize the ancestor of corn, which was produced by genetic modification techniques at the hand of women over ten thousand years in Central America. So to assume that modern food derived from transgenic crops or livestock is fundamentally different from other foods in a way that is relevant to health, safety, or nutrition, is a starting point contradicted by facts. This has been recognized by governments around the world for decades (don’t argue with me, take it up with the OECD, or the National Academies of Science of every country that has looked at the issue).

Furthermore, the United States has had a policy in place that laid out the facts and provided leadership at least since 1992. What the flurry of attempted legislation reported May 20, 2011 in the Washington Post demonstrates is not state “leadership”, but rather that a few state legislators have bought, hook line and sinker, a propaganda thread deployed by opponents of transgenic salmon in particular, and ag biotechnology in general, without benefit of the rich history through which these issues have been ruthlessly scrutinized, cross examined, and tested over the past three decades.

The result of all this cross-examination is that crops, livestock (including salmon), foods and feeds produced with modern recombinant DNA techniques have been scrutinized more, in advance, in depth and detail, than any other foods in the history of humanity. This is why the European Union concluded more than a decade ago that ”…the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods; and if there are unforeseen environmental effects – none have appeared as yet – these should be rapidly detected by our monitoring requirements. On the other hand, the benefits of these plants and products for human health and the environment become increasingly clear.” Refer to the European Commission press release and the complete report announcing the release of the 15 year study including 81 projects/70M Euros and 400 teams.

Every authoritative body that has looked at the transgenic salmon mentioned in today’s article has found it to be impossible to distinguish from any other salmon (although some test results suggest slightly elevated levels of the heart-healthy fish oils that make nutritionists urge us to eat more salmon). This is why most opponents have abandoned the lost argument over food safety, and try to rally support by alleging threats to wild salmon populations. But this is even more foolish and counterfactual.

AquaBounty’s salmon reach market size in half the time and on 10-20% less feed inputs than conventional, farmed  salmon. While conventional farmed salmon have decreased fishing pressure on wild populations, escapees from sea pens in which they are raised have introduced diseases into wild populations with predictable, negative consequences. So how can we improve the supply of salmon without extirpating wild populations? Aquaculture experts for years have tried to make fish-farming more productive. The economics of transgenic salmon production make it possible to grow salmon in closed systems, in concrete tanks. These can be located close to major consumption centers, on the outskirts of Chicago or Des Moines, eliminating the air miles presently incurred importing salmon grown off Norway and Chile. What’s not to like?

Professional opposition figures argue the salmon could still escape, and drive wild populations to extinction by outbreeding them. Philosophers have a technical term of art for this type of argument: “Nonsense.”

These salmon are sterile. They are incapable of reproduction. Even if they were 100% fertile, they would still represent a massive reduction in potential risk to wild populations compared with existing practice because THEY WILL BE GROWN IN CONTAINED SYSTEMS!

This isn’t about “information” or “choice.” Policies that have been in place for decades ensure that any material difference in composition of a food that is relevant to health, safety, or nutrition requires an informative label. This applies to all foods, bioengineered or wild caught. Voluntary “wild caught” labels are already widely used, and give consumers every opportunity to avoid biotech enhanced salmon if they wish. And if consumers want additional information on a label that tells what watershed the egg producing the fish hatched from, retailers can provide that information, as long as they do so in a way that avoids misleading the consumer. But misleading the consumer is, of course, exactly what proponents of “GM” labels want to accomplish.

What this means is very simple: State legislators pushing for discriminatory labeling targeting salmon (or other foods) improved through biotechnology are playing into the hands of professional protest groups heavily funded by competing vested interests (see New Biotechnology; Label GMOs; and Initiative Campaign). Far from “leading” on these issues, these state legislators are following a malevolent pied piper about three decades behind the curve. The likely results if their efforts succeed will be to reduce our access to lower cost/higher quality healthy food, and to ensure that the last wild salmon ends up not living out its life in a healthy ecosystem, but poached on a plate. Let us hope they fail.

Image credit: TheFemGeek

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About the author

L. Val Giddings has nearly three decades of experience in science and regulatory policy relating to biotechnology innovations in agriculture and biomedicine. He works with ITIF to bring intellectual leadership to examination of the constraints inhibiting innovations in these areas, and devising remedies to those constraints.