Call it Genetically Engineered Salmon, not “Frankenfish”

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When you Google “genetically engineered salmon,” the second link that appears is titled “Stop Frankenfish.” Several non-profits have begun campaigns in the last several months demanding the FDA reject this product, many with similarly hyperbolic titles, among them “Stop the Frankenfish Attack.” Unfortunately, the term ‘Frankenfish’ has become synonymous with genetically engineered salmon, which brings to mind a much more gruesome and destructive picture than the fish is in reality. Genetically engineered salmon doesn’t have to mean the end of the world and has the potential to provide cheaper, healthier food to people, something the left usually supports.

Opposition to this product has manifested itself in three different ways. First, the FDA published reports on the safety of GE salmon, and the comment period on the documentation has been open on-and-off since 2010; it officially closed April 26th, 2013. More than one organization has reported that over 1.5 million comments against GE salmon have come in during that period. Even 1.5 million people, however, is less than one percent of the United States’ population.

Second, two bills have been recently introduced in the 113th Congress, both of which prohibit the domestic shipment and sale of genetically engineered salmon. In both cases, an Alaskan senator or representative sponsored the bill, which subjects their bills to increased scrutiny given the fact that the majority of our salmon industry has roots in Alaska. About a month ago, the New York Times reported that grocery store chains like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Aldi have stated they will not sell genetically engineered salmon.

While most Americans do not shop at any of those grocery stores, the unfortunate result of these stores’ action would be to stratify the food system even further and highlight the differences already in place. It’s even possible that these grocery stores have the power to catalyze a trend that other larger chain grocery stores will follow.

There are, moreover, safeguards in place. Before the FDA can approve a type of genetically engineered salmon (this would be the first time), the agency has to publish several reports to show that the product isn’t dangerous. The two reports the FDA has published on the product that Aquabounty, an American company, has created are the Environmental Assessment and the Finding of No Significant Impact. The reports outline the strict regulation under which the fish will be grown.

All of it will be grown in tanks in Panama in a facility miles from water. If fish were to escape, the water they would enter would be above the temperature survivable for the fish. Furthermore, over 95 percent of the salmon are bred to be infertile. The reports also conclude that the fish are safe for human consumption and do not affect the (United States’) environment. (While it’s true that the report does not assess the effect the fish could have on the Panamanian environment, this is something the FDA doesn’t require.)

There are, however, some legitimate reasons to question this product. Even before considering contamination concerns, the most important and obvious issue is that the product is unlikely to be labeled. People should have the right to choose not to eat an engineered animal. What I find most interesting about labeling is the paradox behind the controversy. In order for a genetically modified product to be labeled, it needs to be viewed as significantly different than the naturally occurring product. Companies that are in the GMO business argue their products aren’t that different and therefore shouldn’t be labeled. But these same companies do everything in their power to protect their patented product. If the product wasn’t that different, how, then, did it get the patent?

Nevertheless, there are some major reasons why an everyday consumer should be in favor of genetically engineered salmon.  The primary benefits are related to health, the economy and the environment. Fish is famously good for you, with its high concentration of Omega 3 and vitamin B-12 and its ability to ward off heart disease. It’s also widely seen as a healthy alternative to red meat.

In order to get more people to eat fish, though, there has to be more fish available. And in order to ensure that fish is cheap enough to be accessible by a wide variety of people, reductions in labor and feed costs need to occur. GM salmon may be the solution to those issues because it requires less of both. As for the environment, most of the benefits from GM salmon accrue to aquaculture in general (which is how this salmon would be raised). As most people are aware, the vast majority of wild fisheries are either in the process of collapsing or have already collapsed. Aquaculture is one way to take the pressure off these systems.

In short, we are in the process of making radical changes to the way we feed people. Instead of trying to fight genetically engineered products – products that are likely unstoppable – we should focus our efforts on making sure they are marketed and regulated strictly.

Shoot Graciela your ideas and comments at [email protected]

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