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Genetic Modification: Frankenfish or Red-Herring?

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Genetic Modification: Frankenfish or Red-Herring?

dylan lared

The hot topic at the moment in the world of retail seafood is AquaBounty's new  and improved version of the Atlantic Salmon, fresh from the lab - aka the "Frankenfish". As the first ever Genetically Modified animal planned for human consumption the Shelley-an pop nickname is apt; after all, Shelley's narrative discussion of what happens when humans grasp the god-fire of science and are burned in the process cannot but point the reader to Genetic Engineering - the remaking of the world in our own image that often seems like a dangerous and blasphemous encroachment on the divine. As I was reading up on the recent news concerning AquaBounty, Frankenfish, the FDA, etc, etc, I found myself returning to the text of the original Frankenstein for inspiration. I could hardly have asked for a more appropriate source of commentary on the issue. 

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”  says Shelley, pointing at part of the difficulty for GM or GE food. See, how do we know if the popular backlash against Frankenfish is a rational response to a legitimate threat, or simply the public consciousness rolling around in pain at the magnitude of the change? Should we start picketing the FDA to ban Frankenfish or pop an Aspirin and make a salmon salad sandwich? 

I would like to believe that “The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.” Which is indeed what many proponents of GM say. And in a way, they may be right. After all, modern scientific techniques are but the newest wave of "genetic modification". We have been breeding animals and plants for gene specialization to make them more appropriate for our purposes since the dawn of agriculture. “Genetic engineering is not all that different from conventional plant breeding,” says Dr. Walter De Jong, an associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. 

On the other hand, recent studies have pointed out that Frankenfish, if it escapes into the wild, can interbreed with other species - trout, in the experiments - to create Frankenfish 2.0. This frightening hybrid may out-breed both its progenitors to become UberFrankenfish, the blond-scaly beast of prey which holds us all in bondage. 

"...once I falsely hoped to meet the beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.” - so says Frankenfish to the aquaculturists, the people his gene makeup was designed to please. According to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators though "some fish farmers fear the negative reaction that consumers may have toward all farmed salmon" if the FDA approves our meticulously mutated friend. 

AquaBounty promises that, to protect against the accidental escape and proliferation of Frankenfish, he will be engineered sterile (and female) and farmed away from the ocean and major waterways. Some states have actually legislated this to ensure that we are not reliant on the good will of the corporate fish farms to keep Frankenfish away from Elizabeth - I mean the wild salmon. 

55 food retailers have said that they will not sell Frankenfish if approved by the FDA. 

This decision has generally been lauded as a victory by environmentalists. And yet, how much of a victory is it? What is the real issue at hand? Certainly more scientific data is necessary concerning the possible ramifications of GM food on the environment, ecosystems, and our bodies. However that is not quite the whole of the matter with Frankenfish. These food retailers seem to have no qualms about selling farmed fish with un-modified genomes. Can't we make some of the same objections Frankenfish is hearing to any large-scale fish farming operation? The proliferation of disease, interbreeding with wild stocks, negative health effects in consumers - is any of this sounding familiar? Why should it be that Frankenfish elicits outrage and boycott while devastation caused by conventional fish farming goes practically unnoticed? 

The fish farmers are right to be nervous about Frankenfish. Just as it seems consumer America is accepting the blatant defects of off-shore fish farming as market realities AquaBounty is bringing the focus back to all of aquaculture. Conveniently we can blame Frankenfish's genes as the source of original sin. I'm not denying that GM is a big, big discussion we need to be having, but there are serious issues we are not discussing because GM proves to be such an emotional topic. We don't just need to legislate that Frankenfish be kept away from wild stocks, we need to find legislation that protects wild fisheries in general - from GM, from fish farming, from unsustainable practices at sea.

Moreover, we can't allow big retailers like Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's off the hook because they've said no to GM salmon. Are they supporting offshore fish farming? Fraudulent Alaskan Pollock? Unsustainable Tuna? If the answer is yes they  need to be held responsible and not simply lauded for their hasty rejection of Frankenfish. 

There is another problem we must address concerning the future of sustainable food production. As I have mentioned before, demand for seafood worldwide is growing by more than 8% a year. It is simply not possible, or responsible, to meet that demand by decimating wild stocks. If we want wild fisheries at all we might have to turn to versions of fish farming and perhaps even to GM to make up the deficit. Environmental organizations which decide that genetic modification is a priori 'bad' may not be doing us a favor. We should make these decisions based on careful science, not knee-jerk reaction. 

"Man," I cried, "how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”