Monday, December 31, 2012

Eat at your own risk...

Imagine a menu at some high-brow seafood joint in the near future ... AquAdvantage salmon, broccoflower in a cheese sauce produced from milk taken from hormone-enhanced guernseys and a big, fat genetically modified Idaho baker, slathered in butter and sour cream (also enhanced by hormones, steroids and anti-biotics).

I just threw up in mouth a little bit.

The ocean pout, an eel-like deep-water dweller that grows
all year long in very cold water.
Just before Christmas, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its "finding of no significant impact" on the environment from the production of genetically-engineered salmon by AquaBounty, a company that's been toying with the fishy building blocks of salmon for a few years now. The company has successfully created a "salmon" for commercial production by mingling the genes from Atlantic salmon, Pacific chinook salmon and the ocean pout. The fish's eggs are to be hatched in a facility in Canada and then transported to inland Panama, where they'll be reared to maturity and then, presumably, brought to market as "salmon."

The hybridization, according to the company's website, "provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon." The "gene switch" of the ocean pout (interestingly, this "ingredient" isn't mentioned on the AquaBounty website) allows the fish to continue producing growth hormones all year long, and not just during warmer periods of the year (New York Times, Dec. 21). This, according to the company, will enable these laboratory creations to grow to market size in 18 months instead of three or four years, like wild salmon.

OK... that's enough of the "how." I get that science makes amazing things possible, and I'm a fan of science. But this is science on a Michael Crichton scale... it's "just because you can, doesn't mean you should" science.

Now, AquaBounty markets this product as the future of aquaculture--the solution to a growing, hungry population on an overpopulated planet that can be produced without harming the environment or wild salmon.

On the surface, that sounds great. Really great. As a consumer and someone who is passionate about protecting our natural resources--particularly the fishy ones--I honestly like the explanation the company is giving, provided the fish are sterile and can be successfully sequestered from wild salmon and guaranteed to stay where they're supposed to stay.

But the "on-the-surface" explanation is as far as AquaBounty is willing to go. There's no mention of the residual effects this test-tube creation could truly have on wild salmon and the people who make their livings chasing them up and down the Pacific coast from Alaska to northern California. In short, as a fisherman, the notion of plasticized salmon showing up on menus and consumed by unsuspecting patrons who just want something that matches up well with a good riesling is frightening.


We're already dealing with the dead zones created off the northwest coast from captive salmon farms (some of which raise Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean), and we're seeing the impacts of sea lice blooms in areas where farmed salmon are raised in massive net pens. We're seeing dye-added farm-raised salmon on menus and on ice in grocery stores (and I assume AquaBounty would have to add dye to their product, as well). Efforts to farm massive amounts of a resource that, if nurtured responsibly in the wild, would be more than plentiful are failing the environmental sniff test. Yet these efforts continue. AquaBounty's plans are but the next step in answering the call for large amounts of protein that can't be produced naturally because we haven't taken the necessary steps to protect or restore the habitat needed for wild salmon to thrive in their native waters.

In other words, two wrongs don't make a right. Right?

Will this become a pursuit of the past?
As an angler, I'm looking years down the road. I'm envisioning the Tongass National Forest logged to near-death. I'm envisioning a massive open-pit mine in the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay and a 700-foot-high dam holding back a toxic soup of poisonous, red-and-yellow sludge that, with one good earthquake, could trash an environment and an economy that depends on wild salmon. I'm seeing a future where all the wheeling and dealing that's been done to remove dams on rivers like the Klamath and the Columbia are futile. Where coastal forests are razed for timber.

I can envision a future where my grandchildren won't have the opportunity to cast to wild salmon or trout beneath the canopy of an Alaskan rainforest because that canopy won't be there any longer.

Why? Because wild salmon won't matter.

Sound a bit extreme? Sure... but doesn't a test-tube creation of two different salmon species and a deep-sea eel sound a bit extreme, too?

I propose something different... something easy and attainable. Why do we insist on hastening the demise of our coastal resources when we already know the solution to improving our supply of ready protein for a hungry world? It's simple.

Protect and restore our rivers--remove unneeded and redundant dams and diversions and wisely use our limited water resources. Reconnect watersheds to their headwaters and to the oceans. And don't tell me such ideas are economically unattainable--that's hogwash. If we can make our waters healthy and whole again, we can have our salmon and eat them, too. And that's good for the economy, the environment and the coming generations of anglers who won't get the chance to experience a line stretched tight to a salmon in the coast waters of the Northwest if we don't take care of what we have and restore what we once had.

Let the FDA know that genetically engineered salmon aren't something we're interested in. Let them know that wild salmon from wild water matter today ... and will for generations to come.


  1. Providing for the billions on the planet is a high-wire act, and with decreasing land for production becomes worse. I share most, if not all of your concerns, but realistically with our emphasis on technology and science, and unwillingness to change our lifestyles to a 'greener', more simple lifestyle it's the way were going to head.

    Genetic modification is nothing new; Norman Borlaug created a dwarf wheat that yielded huge increases per acre, and may have saved billions from starvation. In the 50's.

    What is happening with gene splicing is new, and we should look at it's side-effects carefully. But it's coming.

  2. I agree with most of this post, and what "Should Fish More" says too... especially the "billions on the planet... high wire act" part.
    We have pretty well exceeded the comfortable carrying capacity of this planet... or at least our concentrated populations cannot be supported by the surrounding areas in which they find themselves. Thus, shipping costs and economics become the paradigm under which food production operate. What's best for the planet, and the idea of "going back," isn't likely to happen until we reach a catastrophic food and environmental disaster. I say that not as a pessimist (because I remain hopeful), but as a realist.
    My point is, I would much rather digest a meal that has produced its own hormones (even if it's with a few borrowed genes) than one that has them injected. We already eat a ton of genetically modified vegetable products (often unknowingly), and I would certainly rather eat a GMO animal that produces more of its own growth hormone year round than one that is injected with an overdose of mystery hormones and antibiotics that can be passed on to us and our children directly. At least with GMOs you are dealing with a wholly biological product that your digestive tract will treat just as it does any other protein source- it will digest it.
    Sadly, people have lost touch with their food and where it comes from. This is just another fine example, and I thank you for sharing. I would highly recommend the documentary "Eating Alabama" for anyone interested in how bad the situation has become with America's lost connection to the land and the food it provides.
    I truly wish we could go back, but I fear it may be too late.

  3. There's no doubt about it... we have too many mouths to feed. I guess my point is that, we let the almighty dollar be our guide when it comes to how to do it--we genetically modify our crops (and consumers buy them without know... or caring), we churn up the land and plant every available acre with a water-intensive crops, not to feed the hungry, but because politically motivated subsidies make it profitable. You bet, we're going to have to feed an ever-growing population on the planet, but isn't it wiser and more sustainable to alter the way we use the land and the water than it is to "invent" new sources that, in the long run, encourage poor use of our natural resources?

    This particular product could very well be a solution to a severe problem... but I fear the byproduct could disastrous to the places we hold dear. In other words, we're addressing a symptom... not the real problem.

    And... just to add something to the above... since when is the FDA the agency to consider environmental impact? Just a thought...

    1. Excellent points about the environmental and sustainability issues. I couldn't agree with you more. FDA has no business in the environmental arena in my opinion... but in a corrupt government... I guess the FDA is just as good as the EPA. Very scary.

    2. The FDA is NOT the agency to be evaluating these salmon. To sort out these impacts requires a deep knowledge of short and long term effects and that expertise does not exist at the FDA. They're farmers. The studies that were done (I've read them) were reasonably well done but they were far from comprehensive.

  4. It would be interesting to compare an estimate of what Salmon and Steelhead populations would be on the Columbia drainage if all the dams were removed and compare it to the yield on farming.

    One of my favorite Jeff Goldblum quotes is "Life finds a way."

  5. I'm sorry that I don't have anything meaningful to add to this conversation. I am disillusioned and sad. Greed and lack of foresight by our (world) leaders and corporations are selling the natural world...the whole world, down the drain. I hope there is something left for the next generation to fight for.

  6. I don't see why people think they can create something better than nature has done for years. If you start tampering with a natural balance you're going to have problems. It's that simple. Something bad will come of genetically mutating salmon. There will be some other issues people never even thought of. You are what you eat. The genetic make up of people will change over time if we keep eating this stuff. There is no telling what it is doing to our immune systems. Then what? We make genetically mutated people who are resistant to the genetically changed food?

    I'm not a conspiracist but I do think one of the main reasons our society funds space exploration is the hope of finding another planet we can live on. Scientists know humans are acting like parasites on the earth. Eventually parasites can kill their host.

  7. Makes me feel sick thinking about it.

  8. Very well put, Chris. It's disconcerting that folks have decided to jump straight to this solution - like it's an inevitability - rather than actually take far simpler steps to avoid the need for it.

  9. Great post. Currently, there IS enough food to feed everyone. The problem is in distribution, not amount. Read "Stuffed and Starved" by Raj Patel for an eye-opening account of how the global food system works (or actually, doesn't work).

    There are many big problems with food production. We can use land (and water) in better ways. Right now, a lot of US farm land is NOT going to "feed the world." It is going to feed animals. These animals are for meat, yes, but do we have to eat so much meat? No.

    I am not a vegetarian but my meat comes from hunting or from local farmers/ranchers I know. I am an advocate of eating sustainable meat (including brook trout!). If you support industrial meat, you are contributing to so many conservation problems--dead rivers and gulfs, loss of CRP lands and native prairie (to corn), etc.

    I think aquaculture has to be part of the discussion for the world's protein needs. As with energy development, there are good ways to do aquaculture and bad ways. Right now, aquaculture can be incredibly destructive to ecosystems, native fish and human communities (if you doubt this, look at what shrimp farms have done to Southeast Asian communities).

    Salmon farms on the coast have so many huge problems, whether GMO or not. What do these salmon eat? Protein. And so we are taking fish from the ocean and feeding them to fish on farms--a profoundly unsustainable system.

    Salmon also escape, and spread disease. Yeah, I know that the aquaculture industry always claims they will keep the salmon enclosed and removed from their wild brethren. But they always, always, always escape.

    Efforts to produce vegetable-based trout food that farmed trout will eat is actually a step in the right direction.

    There is a certain utopian vision being promoted that technology will offer us a future of unbridled abundance. This is nothing new, but it currently has very attractive packaging. This utopian vision makes many attractive claims, including clean water, ample food and city living for all.

    But if you look closely, that vision leaves no room for wildness, for solitude, for big predators and big spaces, for salmon runs or salmon fishermen. In short, the things that make life living for me. It is not a utopian vision at all. I prefer Chris' vision.

  10. I work with aquaculturists who, so far, are not doing this with their stock. But the precedent is now set it won't be long before other species are spliced and diced.

    I do not believe this should have been allowed, but as you point out the pressure to do so was enormous. Profits trump least to this point in history.

    I'm not giving up on wild salmon yet. But, we have yet another potential disaster in the mix.