<CharlieDigital/> Programming, Politics, and uhh…pineapples


Commentary on “Frankenfish”

Posted by Charles Chen

The news media has recently been abuzz about about this so-called "Frankenfish".

It's been puzzling to me what the hullabaloo has been all about.  The fact of the matter is that humans have been altering the genetics of just about everything we eat for centuries (millennia?).

Those navel oranges you eat? They're all genetic clones of a single mutation that occurred in the 1800's and every navel orange since has been grown via cutting and grafting techniques. Most cultivars of avocados are also grown via cutting and grafting of a single plant with a desirable genetic mutation.  That bread you eat? It's probably made from wheat that's been bred and cross-bred for resistance to certain strains of fungi and resistance to insects.  The corn that you eat (and all of the byproducts made from that corn)? It's been bred, cross-bred, and selected for desirable traits for centuries.

Humans have been manipulating the genetics of the food that we eat and disrupting or enhancing the natural reproductive cycles of plants and animals alike to breed for desirable traits like pest resistance, drought resistance, fatter meat, leaner meat, tastier meat, greater milk production, faster growth, sweeter fruit, and so on. And when genetics aren't enough to get the desired results, humans aren't shy to rely on other aspects of science like artificial steroids, hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and so on. All of which make it into our waterways and our digestive systems.  I'm not saying that these are "good", but that the food supply that you already eat from is hardly free from human intervention.

The rampant and unjustified fear around genetically modified food is symptomatic of a culturally ingrained distrust of science (maybe it stems from religiosity...) and a general ignorance about agriculture and the long history of selection and crossbreeding for genetic traits. Certainly, we can't simply take AquaBounty's word, but we can approach this rationally and study the science and study the data to ensure that indeed, the inserted genes do not have an undesirable side effect in humans and that the environmental impact will be safe.

In the big picture, this type of science is needed if we wish to responsibly address the growing population of the Earth. Our natural resources aren't getting any more bountiful, yet the human population continues to grow, devour, want, and so on. If genetic modification can help yield greater harvests from the same land, if genetic modification and result in the decreased use of pesticides or fungicides or herbicides or fertilizer, if genetic modification can make farm raised fish profitable and thus help the recovery of wild salmon stocks, if genetic modification can help feed the growing population of the Earth and decrease famine and hunger, then I ask why should we not embrace this science and find solutions that work?

It recalls the criticism that Norman Borlaug's work received:

Borlaug's name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution, against which many criticisms  have been mounted over the decades by environmentalists, nutritionists, progressives, and economists. Throughout his years of research, Borlaug's programs often faced opposition by people who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or to have negative effects.

And yet, Borlaug's work has arguably saved billions of lives:

Borlaug received his Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.

During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations.  These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

Of course, there are many that decry humanitarianism as being far from the objectives of AquaBounty; they say that AquaBounty is only in it for greed, for money, for profit.  But then I have to ask: what commercial fishing or farming operation isn't in it for money and profit?  Even that mom & pop organic farm down the street is in it for profit.  It's the very basis of the capitalistic system: do more, cheaper, faster, more efficiently.  There's no such thing as food production that doesn't follow this basis (with few exceptions like the production of fine liquors or wines, for example).

Certainly, there are pitfalls and certainly, there are dangers. However, the reality is that many wild fish populations are being fished to the edge of extinction or will be fished to the brink of extinction if we don't take responsible action today. That includes developing better systems of quotas and monitoring of natural populations, decreasing pollution in our waterways, and developing alternatives that can alleviate the strain that commercial fisheries place on these populations.  In the broader picture, if we also consider land based crop farming, improving efficiency through genetic engineering may be necessary to curb deforestation and the continued destruction of natural habitat while still meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population.  Borlaug developed a hypothesis with regards to the importance of increasing yields through science:

The large role he played in both increasing crop yields and promoting this view has led to this methodology being called by agricultural economists the "Borlaug hypothesis", namely that increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland. According to this view, assuming that global food demand is on the rise, restricting crop usage to traditional low-yield methods would also require at least one of the following: the world population to decrease, either voluntarily or as a result of mass starvations; or the conversion of forest land into crop land. It is thus argued that high-yield techniques are ultimately saving ecosystems from destruction.

I deem these fish safe until the science tells me otherwise. For all intents and purposes, they've only inserted genes from two other fish species (one of them being another type of salmon!) for their desirable traits; hardly worth the shock response and uproar over these GM salmon. The "Frankenfish" label is completely based on ignorance and stoking the fears of the ignorant.