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Animal Welfare

Behold the Frankensalmon.

True believers claim that ingenuity is the lifeblood of economy, central to solving the economic, social and environmental  dilemmas we have today. Much the same has been touted in connection to the release of genetically engineered Salmon into the US market, as approval is considered in the coming days by the USFDA. On 22 November the FDA finished its comment period on the labelling requirements for GE Salmon, and while the product is yet to hit the market (it could have as early as 23 November) it has become a hot-button topic. The future still remains unclear for the mutant fish after Alaskan Senator Mark Begich introduced legislation to prevent it from reaching market, or, if that fails, ensuring certain mandatory labeling requirements. Begich declared:

“Our main objective is to stop the FDA from ever approving this science project that will potentially harm wild Alaska salmon, while posing human and other environmental health risks.”

Civil society groups have highlighted the undemocratic passage of the proposal through regulatory procedures. No comment period was provided (although the labelling question did receive a look-in), and, like many other GE products, the salmon was classified as a veterinary drug to streamline its passage. The biotech firm behind the product, Aquabounty Technologies (an ever so-appropriate name for a group of nature-plundering biocolonists), have done everything in their power to lubricate this slimy ascent through the halls of power: no environmental impact assessment was carried out, and all scientific data (carried out by Aquabounty themselves) were based on a ridiculously small sample size. In spite of this, they claim that:

AquAdvantage® Salmon is a well defined and unique product. It has been thoroughly studied and its attributes clearly established. Its properties and benefits stem from the regulated expression of its specific gene construct, integrated in a specific and stable location in the Atlantic Salmon genome.

AquAdvantage Salmon involves three species: first you stitch some genes from the eel-like ocean pout into a Chinook salmon, and then you stuff that inside an Atlantic salmon egg. This high science witchcraftery has, inter alia, been sold on the promise of increasing food security, since the manipulation supposedly makes the AquAdvantage Salmon grow faster than non-altered fish. However this orthodoxy has been challenged by a new report released by the NGO Food and Water Watch, entitled ‘GE Salmon Will Not Feed the World’. Using information provided by Aquabounty, they argue that the environmental and economic impacts of unleashing mutant fish onto the US market far outweigh the efficiency gains within the industrial model.

Aquabounty’s research argues that where it takes wild salmon approximately 800 days to reach their harvest weight of 8.8 pounds, the altered species will reach that weight in only 600 days, an efficiency gain of 33%. However the claim that reducing the time to market renders GE Salmon more efficient should not be taken at face value. The eggs are to be produced in Canada, then shipped to a captive facility in Panama where the fish would be raised before being shipped back to the US. And, while Aquabounty expound the effishiency (bahaha…) of the GE Salmon, their enhanced growth is only triggered when the animals are fed to “satiety”, meaning they can eat as much as five times more food than natural salmon. Feed costs represent about half of Salmon’s production costs, meaning that to trigger the faster growth period would require significantly higher investment. GE Salmon also require more oxygen to sustain higher growth, meaning more equipment to aerate tanks, and there is also a greater susceptibility to deformities. Indeed, the total lifecycle cost for the GE Salmon provided by Aquabounty does not differ from the cost for its non-GE counterpart – between (USD) $1.65 and $1.80 per pound, while the eggs themselves will be more expensive.

The feed for these fish is also of questionable origin. Food pellets for aquaculture fish primarily comprise prey fish, the animals at the base of the ocean food chain that provide a critical food source for much of the world’s hungry. Increasing numbers of these fish have been worked into the global protein chains that characterise industrial agriculture, depriving the local populations of “low-income food deficit countries” of important protein sources.

What’s more, the meat provided by GE Salmon is of an inferior quality. I’m hardly one to propound the nutritional benefits of meat products, but I do think we should be realistic about the argument we’re having here. On a biological level, meat can be a very efficient source of energy for the consumer, and even farmed Salmon has a reasonable load of proteins and fatty acids. However the equation become sloppier with farmed GE Salmon, as Aquabounty’s own research shows the mutants display a 10% loss in vitamin composition, notably B6. They also demonstrate higher levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, increasing the risk of breast colon, prostate and other cancers.

It’s clear that the GE Salmon is a product of dubious efficiency claims, requiring more inputs, depriving developing populations of a critical food source, and providing inferior meat with greater health hazards. Given these impediments, there is little surprise that its preparation for market has involved such legal duplicity, a terrain often explored by major biotech firms. Biotech corporations play a direct role in determining US policy, both at home and abroad. They have consistently played a significant role in domestic US politics: another recent report from Food and Water Watch details how biotech firms have spent $572 million USD ($762 million in NZD) in campaign contributions and lobby expenditures since 1999. On a global scale, they were also instrumental to the globalisation of intellectual property norms through the WTO-administered TRIPs as part of the coalition of industrial capital that shaped the Uruguay negotiations. Biotech companies hold enormous sway and their interaction with issues of law and public morality are obscured by a veil of secrecy, buttressed by the commercial nature of their work. However the public impacts of GE Salmon in particular, and genetic engineering in general, are too important to be excluded from public debate, and must be channeled through strong, accountable regulatory procedures; procedures that, if necessary, are able to say NO to products that, like GE Salmon, do more harm than good.

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