I’ve been writing about food here at Starving for four years now and I have, in the main, kept politics off its pages. Partly, it was because I want to keep the focus on growing, hunting, fishing, and foraging. But it was partly because I know I’ve got readers whose opinions on these things differ from mine, and I didn’t want to pick a fight. I like a love-fest as much as the next guy.
Well, maybe it’s because I just turned 50 and I think fight-picking is a prerogative that comes, with gravitas and AARP membership, as a perquisite of age, or maybe it’s just because it’s been a slow spring, but I’m going to go ahead and pick that fight now.
So here goes. I think genetic modification offers more potential to improve our food supply than any other agricultural innovation on the table, and I think carte-blanche opposition to it is short-sighted and anti-science. (This post is a variation of a piece I did for the Huffington Post.)
There’s a tendency, I think, to associate GM technology with the forces of evil, as embodied by Monsanto, but genetic engineering has also been deployed for unalloyed good (and I’ll defend some of what Monsanto’s done in a future fight). Eaten any Hawaiian papayas lately? Chances are, they were genetically modified to be resistant to the ringspot virus. And then there’s golden rice, a GM version that’s high in vitamin A, the lack of which is estimated to make some 250 million children in the developing world very sick. Some of them die, and golden rice could help.
What’s the objection to these things? It’s hard to find one, so opponents have to resort to the all-purpose objection of last resort: uncertainty. We can’t be sure that these foods are safe either for us or for the environment.
And that’s true. In a complex world, full of plants and animals and ecosystems that we’ve been manipulating for millennia, there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees for GM organisms, just as there were no guarantees for the crops that came before them, which were manipulated in entirely different ways. Before we had the technological wherewithal to mix specific genes, we tried to induce favorable mutations by firing radiation at seeds and hoping for the best. Is that technique any less likely to create a monster? It may even be more likely, given that scientists had much less control over the process. Yet there was no outcry.
Which is not to say we don’t have to be very, very careful. But certainty isn’t in the cards, for GM foods or for anything else. We need a standard – beyond a reasonable doubt? – for all our food innovations.
Whatever that standard is, I think my favorite GM project, AquAdvantage salmon, meets it.
The AquAdvantage salmon is an Atlantic salmon with one gene from a Chinook salmon and another from an ocean pout which, together, ensure that the fish produces growth hormone year-round, rather than only part-time. The AquAdvantage fish reportedly grows more than twice as fast as its unmodified brethren.
That translates to somewhat less feed, and a lot less labor, as well as lower energy input and less waste and pollution. Which translates to, among other things, a much lower price tag. Since fish is one of the most healthful foods in our diet, and there isn’t enough of the wild kind to go around, this could be excellent news.
Its GM-ness is the only snag, and is why the fish has been working its way through regulatory channels for a mind-numbing seventeen years. In that time, the FDA (I know, I know) has compiled long, detailed answers to the questions about safety for human health and the environment. On human health, they say, unequivocally (on page 107), that “We looked for direct food consumption hazards. None were found.” The second question is whether the fish would be a threat to wild populations if it were to escape. Because the fish are raised in land-based pens, that question applies to a catastrophic failure of the holding facilities (which certainly could happen). Again, the FDA says the fish is safe.
None of us should consider an FDA assessment the last word – I certainly don’t – but if you slog through everything they’ve considered on this issue, it’s hard to find a viable objection. Seventeen years is a long time to evaluate a fish.
But I don’t want to ask what you think about the AquAdvantage salmon. I want to ask you something different. When you see a headline along the lines of, “New Study Released on Safety of GM Fish,” what is it that you hope the article will say?
Do you hope it’s the smoking gun, the last nail in the coffin of Frankenfish? Or do you hope, hope against hope, that we find out the fish is safe? Safe, so we can raise salmon with a fraction of the resources. Safe, so we can ease the pressure on our wild stocks. Safe, so families with tight food budgets can have salmon for supper.
If your impulse is to oppose GM food because it’s GM, why is that? Is it really out of the question that a gene from another organism can make food more healthful, more disease-resistant, or better tasting, without compromising its safety?
Before you answer that, I’d encourage you to read the story of Mark Lynas. He’s a prominent environmentalist, and he helped bring the anti-GM movement to the fore. And then, after more than a decade of activism, he changed his mind. Earlier this year, at the Oxford Farming Conference, he gave a speech in which he said this:
For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up g.m. crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-g.m. movement back in the mid-nineties, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.
Kevin and I farm oysters, and it’s hard work. We signed on for that work, partly in the hope that it would help us fend off decrepitude, but it is the magnitude of that work that makes our oysters a luxury product. If we can’t make enough money to be compensated for our time, labor, and investment, we can’t be in the business, and so our product is out of reach for lots of people.
If you came to me tomorrow and told me that scientists had created an oyster modified with, say, a blue mussel gene that made it reach market size in half the time, I would sit up and take notice. I would want to hear more. I would hope against hope that it would be safe and delicious, that I could grow it faster and sell it for less, and that more people could eat oysters.
Genetic modification raises hard questions that need thorough answers. But, given finite resources to feed a growing population, wouldn’t it be great if science could help us grow more nutritious foods with less time, effort, land, and money? I’m a farmer, and I say yes.
I’m rooting for the fish.