Frankenfish: Not Quite a First

September 23rd, 2010 | 5 Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Salmon

From my point of view, “unnatural” spans a range of things. All domesticated breeds are genetically altered. Look at corn compared to its progenitor teosinte, a wild grass still found in Central America. Or a toy poodle compared to the timber wolf that was its progenitor before people started breeding them for all kinds of traits.

Humans have done a lot to alter animals genetically for thousands of years by just selective breeding. Genetic engineering makes it possible to make fast genetic changes without selective breeding. I am not comfortable with it because of unintended consequences. But compared to the unintended (and intended) consequences of agriculture in general, with its pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, habitat destruction, predator control, water diversions and groundwater depletion, not to mention the explosion of human population facilitated especially by the Green Revolution, genetic alteration through genetic engineering seems almost a minor issue.

What I do dislike is patents on genetically engineered life forms, and especially the way some companies have used patented, genetically engineered forms to directly drive people out of business through horribly unethical legal maneuvering.

So there are broad issues, among which is the sustainability of farmed salmon. One issue with farming is the food conversion ratio, the amount of fish meal, for instance, that you have to feed a salmon to get a pound of meat back. The genetically engineered salmon actually use food more efficiently. And I don’t believe human safety from eating a genetically engineered salmon is an added concern.

I’d rather they weren’t genetically engineering farm animals, but to me, in the whole array of environmental and agricultural issues, there are bigger fish to fry. So I have mixed feelings and am generally not comfortable with the larger implications. But at the moment I don’t think it’s a human health issue from a strictly culinary or medical standpoint.

- Carl Safina

5 Responses to “Frankenfish: Not Quite a First”

  1. armand says:

    though i appreciate your argument i have to disagree
    there is a world of difference between selective breeding and genetic engineering
    and without unbiased long term study there is no way to predicted the potential heath risks
    i do however agree that agriculture in general as well as fish farm have a myriad of problems which should be focused on to find real long term solutions not genetically engineering life to bypass said issues

  2. Ken Schneider says:

    Thanks for this interesting post. As someone with both an MD and a PhD in molecular biology, I would have no qualms about eating this genetically modified fish – from what I understand, the genetic changes are in the non-coding region of the genome and will change the expression of the target gene (and probably “downstream” genes) without producing any “foreign” proteins. I’m much more concerned about pollution and environmental contaminants affecting wild-caught fish (both for their sake and for the food supply) than I am about this GMO. I do, however, have significant concerns about the ecological consequences that could result if this fish was accidentally released into the wild. I have no expertise in this area, but we’ve all seen the devastating unintended effects of non-native species introductions, as you mention. I also object to patents on life forms, in general – it just “seems wrong”, doesn’t it?

  3. carl safina says:

    thanks for the thoughtful replies.
    I might draw a brighter line between the concern that it’s bad for our health if we eat it (it appears not to be bad) and the larger ecological and commercial consequences and unknowns (which should worry us).
    Also, FDA–is it the right agency? Where is EPA? These things get loose and pollute the gene pools of adjacent crops, and patents on life result in very ugly legal proceedings against innocent farmers who’ve been invaded by patented life. Maybe we need a time-out.

  4. Izola Pago says:

    In regards to this topic, it is hard to find reliable information on the Web. Thanks for sharing your suggestions on natural health and similar topics. So, do you have any reliable opinions on where I can search for more useful ideas on the Web? Keep up the excellent work!

  5. Anna Weinstein says:

    Thanks for this great post Carl, and Ken Schneider for your response. There is way too little perspective on this issue in the environmental advocacy community. There is a lot of uninformed opposition to genetically modified organisms. Due to the reasons Ken alludes to, I agree GMOs are unlikely to be as big a threat as habitat loss, destructive fishing and agriculture, poaching, etc., which are existing and growing threats.
    Carl, I’m looking forward to reading your new book.
    My 9-year-old daughter is reading Song for the Blue Ocean. How great is that?

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