Salmon: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Salmon Preparation Board

On December 21, 2012, the Food and Drug Administration published a draft environmental assessment for a new variety of salmon that promises to benefit the health and wallets of consumers, reduce dramatically the environmental impacts some have linked to conventionally farmed salmon, and reduce over-fishing pressure on wild salmon stocks. The publication of this EA is noteworthy because it marks at least a temporary elevation of facts, reason, and innovation-friendly policy over ignorance, mendacity, and what appears to have been ill-considered political interference with science-based and pro-innovation policies with a long history of strong, bipartisan support.

The document should have been published more than a year ago. But as is often the case with pathbreaking innovations, its road has been marked by unexpected bumps and potholes.  It finally looked as if the path to publication was clear last April, when movement suddenly stopped without explanation. The story is well told in SLATE , by Jon Entine, who has ferreted out indications that it was put on hold out of fears its publication might anger a portion of President Obama’s most fervent base, a calculation of elevated political significance in an election year. We are, of course, “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on” in this casino. But to the President’s credit, Entine’s reminder that the election is won seems to have shaken the document loose from wherever it had gotten hung up, and it is now properly exposed to daylight.

The Washington Post has summarized  the story and provided colorful quotes that reveal just how divorced from reality are the opinions of some of the salmon’s opponents:

“The notion that consuming Frankenfish is safe for the public and our oceans is a joke,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said in a statement Friday. “I will fight tooth and nail with my Alaska colleagues to make sure consumers have a clear choice when it comes to wild and sustainable versus lab-grown science projects. . . . Today’s report is by no means the final say on this issue.”

“You keep those damn fish out of my waters. It will ruin what I think is one of the finest products in the world,” [Alaska Senator Don] Young said in an interview, saying he fears that the spread of fish farms could eventually contaminate the wild salmon industry in Alaska. He wants to force delays in any FDA approval.

“If I can keep this up long enough, I can break that company,” he said, referring to AquaBounty, “and I admit that’s what I’m trying to do.”

And from dependably mendacious luddite loons, the fact-challenged assertion that “It is extremely disappointing that the Obama Administration continues to push approval of this dangerous and unnecessary product”…

It is clear that Sens. Begich and Young have read none of the documents summarizing FDA’s years of cross-examination of AquaBounty’s salmon, nor, apparently, even the summary background notes congressional staff usually prepare to prevent their members from embarrassing themselves. If they had they might understand that concrete fish tanks far from the sea, producing sterile fish on a short path to our dinner plates (produced first in the Panamanian highlands; in the future, perhaps, just outside Chicago or Albuquerque) are far less likely to create problems for Pacific salmon than the existing sea pens now common off the coasts of Norway, Chile, and British Columbia. A century of failed attempts to establish self-sustaining Atlantic salmon populations into Pacific (and other) waters (zero successes in 170 tries) shows that the survival potential of AquAdvantage salmon, even if it were deliberately freed, would be substantially less than that of a cow in the jungle. This is a bogus issue.

As for “dangerous and unnecessary…” FDA confirms this salmon cannot be distinguished from other Atlantic salmon by any measure relevant to nutrition or safety. Don’t take my word for it – read the FDA analysis. AquAdvantage salmon have been shown definitively to be safe, and as nutritionists remind us, salmon is a highly desirable part of a healthy diet. Even the rabid opponents don’t believe their own claim that the product is “unnecessary.” If they did, they would not waste so much energy trying to secure a result they could instead simply rely on the market to deliver. Furthermore, the conceit that governments should determine what products are “necessary” has been thoroughly tested.

As for Sen. Young’s vow to break the company financially, we can all be grateful that a new investor makes that a “bridge to nowhere” too far. One need not look far for an explanation of the Senator’s fact-challenged and easily falsifiable assertions, however. Some of his constituents who market Pacific salmon fear competition, and the good Senator is simply following the time honored practice (though no less hypocritical, for all of that) of advancing his parochial interests at the expense of the rest of us. History has tested this idea, too, and found it to be not, generally, a sound basis for public policy.

Despite the overwhelming support of the facts, this fish is not yet out of the woods. After a public comment period FDA must evaluate and respond to the comments received (a whipped up tsunami of fact-challenged hyperventilation from the usual suspects can be confidently predicted) before the final EA can be published. AquaBounty must then still find partners to buy their eggs and raise the fish for supermarkets with the sand to stand for consumers against the torches and pitchforks. But on Friday 21 December, by following the facts, the FDA made it more likely that the future will bring a time when, as Wallace Stegner urged us, we will “tread more gently on the land.” As taxpayers, we should be grateful. Give those bureaucrats a raise.

Image courtesy of Deviantart

 

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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.