GM salmon to be let loose

salmon leaping

FRANKENFISH: we need to curb our fishing habits, and nurture our environment, or we’ll have nothing.

Roz Paterson reports Q: When is a fish not a fish? A: When it’s a commodity. OK, not exactly side-splitting, but then the introduction of Genetically Engineered (GE) salmon into the human food chain is no laughing matter either. Some time soon, the first GE fish—the AquAdvantage Salmon—will go into production, with unimaginable consequences for wildlife, the marine environment, and human health.

Unimaginable, I say, because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who have allowed this curious morsel to slip through the net, has regarded it in the light of—not a food for consumption—but a veterinary drug. Thus, it has been passed as having “no significant impact” on health.

Those who adversely commented during the consultation period—know-nothings like fishermen, consumer safety advocates, ecologists, that sort of thing—are dismayed that AquAdvantage could pass muster with so little scrutiny.

We don’t really know if GE food is good, bad or indifferent for our health, but we do know that it is damaging to the natural environment, and no amount of corporate greenwash, more of which later, will change that.

But to return to the drawing board, let us first consider what an AquAdvantage Salmon actually is. Dubbed, eerily enough, one of the best inventions of 2010 by Time magazine, the AquAdvantage Salmon comprises 40,000 genes from your traditional Atlantic Salmon, spliced with a growth-hormone regulator from the rarer Pacific Ocean Chinook Salmon, plus a promoter from the eel-like ocean Pout.

The point being that this new biotech wonder grows at 11 times the rate of an ordinary salmon, reaching maturity at 18 months, as opposed to three years, as it can grow all year round, rather than just in spring and summer.

As such, it marks a significant leap for the biotech industry, from sorry old vegetables to actual living, breathing animals. It is, they claim, the answer to the ecological disaster that is our over-fished seas. If we take this technology to its logical conclusion, we can leave the seas in peace and just grow fish in the lab!

Plus, we can feed everyone, the poor, the hungry, the Omega-3 oil deficient, on the cheap! Plus, these little biotech babies, because they grow up so fast, won’t need half as much food as the real, swimming-in-the-sea variety, making them real eco treasures!

Before we cut through this corporate crap, let’s be clear on one thing. AquaBounty Technologies, who ‘owns’ the right to produce these GE wonders, is not a charitable organisation dedicated to the elimination of poverty and the protection of marine habitats. It is your common-or-garden, rapaciously greedy capitalist outfit, primed for profit-making…and nothing else.

For AquaBounty, fish are a commodity, like salt or Hello Kitty pencil cases; not living creatures, inextricably linked to every other species on earth.

Sure, the idea of growing fish in a lab sounds like it leaves the seas in peace, but it so totally doesn’t. For one thing, these fish need fed, and being turbo-charged growers, they need fed a lot. And they need fed fish protein. And that comes from the sea.

Which means the mass-production of GE salmon requires more, not less, fishing of our over-fished marine environment. Furthermore, if they can make money from AquAdvantage, they will grow lots and lots of AquAdvantage, which means…you get it.

As for feeding the poor, the hungry and so on…you’re unlikely to see AquaBounty giving this stuff out for free at food banks. That is not why they are developing GE salmon.

There are other issues, relating to the bit where human life overlaps with the natural environment. Increasingly, we are becoming re-acquainted with the fact that our lives and the natural world are intertwined. That our activities impact on the world around us, and the world around us pays us back.

To say that GE salmon has “no significant impact” is to ignore this truth. For instance, although AquaBounty insist it won’t happen, there is every possibility that some of these GE salmon will escape into wider environment; they are, deep down, creatures of the wild, after all.

If and when this happens, the already threatened wild salmon population will find itself competing for food and habitat with a monster fish that is both bigger and stronger than it is, and which consumes much, much more food.

Which is hardly good news for wild salmon, or the marine habitat in which it lives, which needs every link in its elaborate chain to thrive. You can’t simply wipe out one species and expect business as usual.

Karl Marx, who knew nothing of GE fish, but surely knew a thing or two about economics, noted that capitalism produces profits because it doesn’t pay the true cost of production, in terms of adequate wages to workers, and compensation for the use of natural resources.

Undoubtedly, the company in this case will pay the workers and for the fish protein, but will it be enough to compensate humanity for the loss of traditional fishing skills, understanding of the marine environment and the need for vigilant stewardship, as practised by indigenous coastal communities of previous centuries?

And will it be enough to compensate for the continued decimation of the world’s fish stocks and the potential collapse of the wild salmon population?

Biotechnology is keen to position itself as the answer to our ecological woes. OK, they seem to say, we have made a little mess here, but we can clean it up, with new technology and clean, green ideas. In other words, we can solve the problems created by over-consumption by creating different things to consume.

It’s not the way. Just as we shouldn’t pin our hopes on spraying the sky with titanium oxide to reduce global warming, no more should we hold out for GE as the solution to failing crops, due to climate change, and land erosion, due to over-grazing, and marine sterility, due to over-fishing and increasing acidity.

Capitalist solutions are not solutions; they’re just another cheap way to make money, and keep us hooked on the idea of buying our way out of trouble. We need to curb our fishing habits, and nurture our environment, or we’ll have nothing. Even GE fish can’t eat money.

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