Is it Too Late to Debate the Future of GMO Salmon?

The FDA appears ready to approve ‘frankenfish’ for sale, but the arguments rage on.

GMO salmon

Bigger, faster, cheaper? (Photo: Images Etc. Ltd./GettyImages)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Anyone looking for a reminder of what a Brave New World this is we’re living in would do well to check out the online debate about genetically modified salmon over at Yale Environment 360.

Somewhere in the midst of all the back-and-forth about accelerated growth rates of transgenic fish and “biotechnology-based hybridization” (apparently that’s one of the biotech industry’s preferred euphemisms now, as opposed to, say, “Frankenfood”), it kind of hits you: WTF! This is really happening!

And indeed it is. Whatever valid points the anti-GMO camp—here represented by Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food—may raise, the Food and Drug Administration appears well on its way to approving the sale of GM salmon.

The agency has already essentially given it the green light; back in December, it concluded that the so-called “Frankenfish” would likely be safe to eat and wouldn’t harm the environment. Now, the deadline for the public to comment on the FDA’s findings, April 26, is fast approaching.

If the march toward government approval appears inevitable, public approval may be a different story. In March, long before any Franken fillet could hit stores, several large grocery chains announced they would not sell GM salmon, including Whole Foods, Aldi’s and Trader Joe’s.

Greenberg’s sparring partner in the Yale Environment 360 debate is Elliot Entis, cofounder and former CEO of Aqua Bounty, the company behind the AquaAdvantage Atlantic Salmon. (Again, “AquaAdvantage Atlantic salmon”—would George Orwell laugh or cry?) And while it all starts out genial enough, it quickly gets testy, even for a debate conducted via email.

At one point Entis jabs with, “It seems that personally you want to be able to continue to eat meat protein, but not have it so available that everyone can afford to have it.” To which Greenberg replies, “Honestly speaking, I don’t believe that making a faster-growing salmon, already a luxury product for 99 percent of the world, will mean that people in South Sudan will suddenly be feasting upon lox and bagels every Sunday.”

As you might imagine, Entis bills himself as a compassionate capitalist, who of course expects some sort of remuneration for all the R&D expense behind his company’s no doubt heavily patented product. But he presents himself as ultimately having more humanitarian ambitions, to use this technology for good and to feed the world’s hungry with cheap, fast-growing salmon (i.e., science substituting for Jesus in the miracle of loaves and fishes).

“[P]erhaps you will be pleased to know that [this technology] has successfully been applied to tilapia, a fish that subsists on vegetable matter and makes up much of the meat diet of poorer countries,” Entis writes. “A variation of the technology has also been used in China so that carp, a diet mainstay in Asia, can be produced more quickly with less feed.”

(Quick background: The transgenic Atlantic salmon has been outfitted with a gene from an ocean eel that keeps its growth hormones pumping, making it reach market weight on a quarter less feed than conventional farmed salmon.)

Greenberg, for his part, does an admirable job parrying Entis’s corporate-honed messaging. And yet, it's not unlike seeing muted video from an Occupy protest, where a scrappy activist and a suited Wall Streeter are engaged in some sort of exchange, the gesticulations of the former seeming to signal a kind of fevered desperation to convey all the convoluted problems of the current “system,” while the latter stands as composed, ordered and impervious as an Excel spreadsheet.

Entis’s gibe about Greenberg wanting to deny the world access to cheaper animal protein comes on the heels of what is probably Greenberg’s most disastrous moment in the debate, when he writes: “If we continue to bend the rules of nature so that we can provide more and more food for an open-ended expansion of humans on the planet, something inevitably will have to give. Would you like to live in a world of 15 billion people? 20 billion? I would not. And while it’s possible you will label my response as New Age-ish, I feel GE food distracts from the real question of the carrying capacity of the planet.”

It’s not that Greenberg is wrong; he’s actually right. But when you get on the “overpopulation is the problem” track and begin pondering how we might address that, suddenly you’re on a high-speed rail line to a future that makes 1984 seem like a fairy tale—and a Frankenfish dinner in 2014 appear positively Rockwellian.    

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