Friday Rant: Genetic Engineering vs. Filthy Offshore Farms — A Fish Story

I wrote a post last month in which I quoted Marianne Cufone, Director of the Fish Program at Food & Water Watch, saying "About 80 percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported, but less than 2 percent of those imports are actually inspected for contaminants like filth, antibiotics, chemicals and pathogens ... The prevalence of harmful contaminants in some imported seafood is documented repeatedly in the small number of inspections that the Food and Drug Administration makes." The impetus of that piece focused upon the essential failure/feasibility of the FDA to cope with the volume of imported seafood to the U.S. But there's another solution to cleaning up our fish fare that I missed.

The Paris Post-Intelligencer wrote last Tuesday, "The future of a genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as wild fish is in the hands of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ... Is it a boon for the world's food supply or an unnatural monster that poses untold problems?" And James C. Greenwood, President and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, writes in an opinion column in last Thursday's WSJ that "Overfishing and pollution are quickly wiping out the native global fish supply ... [and] virtually all fisheries risk running out of commercially viable catches by 2050." Greenwood goes on to describe how "about half of seafood consumed world-wide is now farm-raised. But it's expensive. Shipping farm-raised salmon to the United States from Chile, where most of our fish originates, costs as much as 75 cents per pound."

Enter a fish called AquAdvantage, "being developed by a Massachusetts biotech firm [that] is in every measurable way identical to Atlantic salmon -- except it grows to normal size twice as fast." Greenwood claims, "Faster-growing genetically engineered salmon could help restore America's domestic fish farming industry, trimming costs and reducing energy consumption. If the FDA approves the fish it would also spur investment in other food products. This could help meet the world's growing demand for protein-rich food." On-shoring less expensive, safe fish farming -- subjected to on-site FDA process inspections -- sounds like a win/win if consumer squeamishness over genetic engineering can be tamped down.

Let's look at the history. Plant and animal farmers have been genetically engineering crops and stocks for centuries. Botanists have been cross breeding vegetable seeds to toughen vegetable skins to make them resistant to insect and transport damage and animal husbandry has a rich history of selectively breeding the strongest studs with disease resistant prolific females. The science has become far more sophisticated but the concept of genetic manipulation continues to evolve. So how is "frankenfish", as it's critics call it, materially different than franken-tomato, franken-cow, franken-pig or franken-squash?

Not much according to Greenwood, who claims "that these faster-growing salmon are the result of more than two decades of research ... [and] the FDA's system to ensure the safety of such animals has been in development for over a decade." Interestingly, the fast growing salmon has been manipulated in just two ways: "a gene from the Chinook salmon, which matures rapidly, along with a gene from a salmon relative called ocean pout, which produces growth hormones all year." Resulting in the claim that "aside from these two tweaks, the AquAdvantage salmon is chemically and biologically identical to the salmon we purchase at the local grocer."

For a completely opposite perspective on this issue, check out this article from The Center for Food Safety that is focused on down stream production of other chemical compounds and contamination of wild fish populations.

This could be a vibrant topic to discuss over the weekend with friends while I leave you this Friday with a quote from last week's CBS Sunday Morning. The segment described how Orange Ruffy, an increasingly popular restaurant fish, was originally called the Slime Head. The lesson: "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day ... teach him to rename fish and he'll eat anything."

William Busch

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