Agriculture Innovation: When a Fish is More Than Just a Fish

GM-salmon
The Food and Drug Administration seems to be moving closer to approving genetically modified salmon for sale in the United States.  While 80 to 90 percent of corn and cotton in the United States are genetically modified (GM) this would be the first time a GM animal is sold for human consumption.  The fish developed by AquaBounty Technologies has an added growth gene that enables it to grow twice as fast and fifty percent larger.  Opponents, ranging from fishermen and their regional elected officials to environmentalists and religious groups, have begun calling AquaBounty’s salmon “Frankenfish” and claiming that a GM fish would endanger consumers, infect local stocks, destroy the environmental ecosystem, and generally constitute playing God.  Two pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress that would either ban the fish outright or require a “transgenic” label.

AquaBounty claims that because the fish is sterile, it would be impossible to impact local stocks and would actually help local salmon ecosystems because the fish could be bred at inland fish farms, relieving overfishing of natural salmon.  The increased growth speed would also mean significantly more salmon reach the market, lowering costs.  Moreover, because the GM fish is indistinguishable from conventional salmon, there are no health concerns.

Yet the debate actually has little to do with any of this.  Critics of genetically modified products, almost exclusively in the United States and Europe, simply don’t like the idea of altering the genetic structure of an organism.  To them it’s meddling.  Moreover, such critics believe the benefits of GMOs are isolated to greedy corporate patent holders and rich shareholders.  New York Times journalist Timothy Egan emphasizes this point in his recent article titled, “Frankenfish Phobia” where he sarcastically writes, “Wild salmon require so much work: they need clean water, a bountiful ocean and restraint to ensure that they aren’t fished out of existence. Vigilance, and a small amount of sacrifice — what a drag.”

What is a “small amount of sacrifice” in reality?  What types of social sacrifices may be needed to rely solely on wild salmon if a cheaper GM option is available?  Looking at the numbers, fish provide roughly 40 percent of the protein consumed by nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. Over a billion people throughout Asia alone depend on fish and seafood as their major source of animal protein, and UNESCO, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization, has warned that there will be a global shortfall of fish for human diets of 20 to 30 million tons in the coming decade—not surprising given almost 80% of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse.  And while food is more accessible here in the United States, for many Americans healthy food is not.  Between 1980 and 2008 child obesity in the U.S. went from 5 to 18 percent.  Salmon is a far healthier source of protein than beef, pork or chicken, but it is also much more expensive.  Bringing the cost down to a point where salmon is a viable alternative to meat for working Americans families would go a long way to bring down cholesterol and obesity rates.  On top of all this, inland salmon farms will create jobs for Americas in rural areas that traditionally have higher unemployment and poverty rates.  So rejecting a better fish actually could require quite a large sacrifice—it just won’t be New York Times journalists who are asked to do the sacrificing.

What does any of this have to do with a blog on innovation?  First, this isn’t just about salmon, it is about an outright resistance to technology and innovation from those who do not need the technology and for whom it has become fashionable to reject innovation.  Egan and most of his readers will always be able to afford a fresh caught salmon at Whole Foods; it’s less obvious how much longer conventional or organic farming practices will be able to provide nourishment to the rest of the world’s six billion inhabitants.  Harvard’s Robert Paarlberg makes this point in his excellent book “Starved For Science” by analyzing the different reactions American and European consumers have for GM food versus GM drugs.  130 GM drugs and vaccines have now been approved by the FDA, making up 70 percent of new approvals in 2006 and approximately one-quarter of new drugs coming to market.  Yet you rarely see college students or suburban soccer moms rallying against GM drugs.  One study found 60 percent of Europeans approve of biotechnology in medicine but less than one-third approve of it in food.  The difference is that consumers in the developed world are satisfied with the level of agriculture productivity because we have enough food at a price most of us can afford to pay, but everyone knows someone who could use a better drug, so we’re willing to take the risks and allow innovation in our medicine.  None of this would really matter if it wasn’t for the sad fact that agriculture science and R&D works off of trickle-down economics: if there is never a GM salmon in North America then there will never be a GM Tilapia, the staple fish of western Africa (not to mention the benefits of a cheap healthy poultry option for poor people in North America). 

The argument is not that a GM fish is the “right” answer.  There are a lot of hard questions that are yet to be answered.  But first-world ideology is increasingly keeping politicians, activists and consumers in the U.S. and Europe from asking the right questions when it comes to innovation in food systems.  Egan concludes his piece by stating, “The fate of wild salmon and a panic over power plants that no longer answer to human commands would not seem to be interlinked. But they are, in the belief that the parts of the world that have been fouled, or found lacking, can be engineered to our standards — without consequence.”  Egan is right: there have been some horrible consequences of uncontrolled technology.  However, for most of the globe, the only thing scarier than too much innovation is too little. 

 

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About the author

Scott Andes is a former Research Fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. His research interests include emerging economies, regional and global competitiveness, e-government and e-commerce issues. He has served as Special Assistant to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. He has also worked on several statewide and national political campaigns including Senator Cantwell's (D-WA) reelection campaign and Secretary Clinton's presidential campaign. Mr. Andes graduated with a B.S. in Government from the London School of Economics. He is currently completing a Masters in Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.