Commentary: The latest activist tactics

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It’s a cold day in LA when the Los Angeles Times comes out in favor of biotechnology.

Although the temperature has averaged about 76 degrees this week down in sunny Southern California, the LA Times surprisingly ran an editorial last week titled, “Science and salmon” that rebuked a group of eight [actually 11] senators from salmon-fishing states who are demanding that the Food and Drug Administration stop spending money to study whether genetically engineered salmon are safe—thus preventing the commercial introduction of the GE fish into the marketplace.

“There’s plenty to debate [with GE salmon],” the newspaper cautioned,“but squelching scientific inquiry isn’t the answer.”

The senators are warning the FDA that they will pursue legislation—which has already passed in the House—to keep the FDA from funding further studies to determine whether GE salmon are a threat to the environment or to the health of consumers.

“People tend to respect and believe in science—until it tells them something they didn’t want to hear,” the editorial stated. “Thus President George W. Bush clung to his billion-dollar-a-year Reading First program even after a study by his administration showed that it wasn’t improving students’ reading abilities. Senators from states where the gray wolf was reintroduced successfully pushed for legislation delisting it as an endangered species; it didn’t matter what the Interior Department had determined.”

Words of wisdom, and from a most unlikely source, since the LA Times has been notorious in the past for pounding the drum on such issues as the ban on all non-ambulatory cattle in the food chain (during the BSE scare) and urging a zero tolerance policy for microbial pathogens in raw meat products (pretty much all the time).

Meanwhile, the GE salmon saga continues, with the Organic Consumers Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists leading the charge to demonize the GE fish, which grow more rapidly than conventional salmon. Those groups—along with other activists like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Pew Environment Group—have pushed a trio of tactics to gin up both public and political disapproval for the as-yet commercialized salmon, namely:

  • That the GE salmon contain a “Trojan gene” that would potentially destroy native salmon populations
  • That the GE fish pose a risk of increased allergenicity to consumers
  • That the environmental impact of fish farming in general is unacceptably high

The answers to those issues have been thoroughly documented in a lengthy report last week appearing in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology, written by Alison Van Eenonnaam from UC-Davis and William Muir from Purdue University. Here’s their response to those complaints.

First, there is little difference in risk between GE fish escaping into the ocean—and by the way, the transgenic salmon are raised inland in contained ponds—and the decades-long business of artificially growing salmon in fish hatcheries, where they are selectively bred for increased size, growth rate, etc. None of the uptight senators seems to have any concerns about that process, which, in fact, is the support system for the salmon runs in much of the non-Alaskan waters of the Northwest.

Second, there is tremendous natural variability in the content of and sensitivity to the parvalbumins—the offending allergic proteins—in wild fish. Levels vary greatly due to seasonal changes, variations among species and other variables, such as cooking methods. Thus, there are no good studies definitively assessing baseline allergenicity of salmon with which to compare GE salmon wild commercial salmon in the marketplace. So much for the “sketchy science” the Times accused AquaBounty Technologies, the GE salmon’s developers of presenting to FDA.

Finally, although aquaculture in general has been attacked as environmentally destructive, the arguments against it are basically the same ones used to demonize feedlots and CAFOs and much of modern livestock production: Too concentrated, too polluting, too energy- and resource-intensive, etc, etc. Nowhere do the opponents of either animal agriculture or aquaculture address the alternative: If we stop raising cattle or hogs in feedlots or hog barns, what’s the alternative? And if aquaculture is banned or shamed out of existence, are we really going to pretend that we can feed the world’s appetite for fish protein by continuing to extract millions of tons of seafood from the world’s already severely depleted fisheries?

That question never gets addressed, much less answered.

As the Nature authors stated, “Wild-caught fish deplete the oceanic stocks and do not present a long-term, ecologically sustainable solution to rising global fish demand.”

The real issue in all the hot air and smoke surrounding GE salmon—and biotechnology in general—is the attempt by activists to leverage the regulatory process in such a way that the bureaucratic burdens become so onerous that biotech investors bail out. Specifically, as has already happened in the case of Round-up Ready sugar beets and GE alfalfa, they are demanding that FDA and USDA order full-scale Environmental Impact Statements under the guise of the rather general language in the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes.

But a full-scale EIS is generally thousands of pages long and must document the ecological, economic, social, cultural and even aesthetic impact of the proposed product or process. Usingthe insistence on an EIS to slow or derail the introduction of biotechnology is sidestepping the science we need to determine its safety and efficacy by resorting to legal weapon that simply adds prohibitive costs to the proposed introduction.

And offers activists a chance to reprise their mantra of how Frankenfoods will kill us all.

In their lengthy review, the Nature authors concluded that, “There is little benefit to society if attempts to increase public participation in the regulatory process are used as an opportunity to vilify technology.”

Even the LA Times’ editors can agree on that point.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator

 


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Dallas E. Weaver, Ph.D.    
Huntington Beach, Ca  |  August, 14, 2011 at 10:44 AM

You could have mentioned that Dr. William Muir, one of the authors, is also the author of the "Trojan gene theory" about how you can use a genetic modification to kill off a wild species. He points out that the genes in the GMO salmon will be eliminated from a wild population and his theory doesn't apply and the "Trajan gene" concept doesn't apply. You should also not that most of the Alaska "wild" salmon are actually ranched fish that were produced in a hatchery and released to be caught and called "wild". They are no more "wild" than cattle were when we had open ranges.

Grant Warkentin    
Campbell River, B.C.  |  August, 15, 2011 at 04:17 PM

Thank you for this column, Dan. We in salmon farming are in the same boat, as it were, with cattle farmers and other livestock producers when it comes to dealing with criticism. And you make the point clearly. If not large-scale agriculture and aquaculture, what then? How will we feed 7 billion people? Our farms work, and are environmentally responsible, even if they are large-scale. The key is to continually improve what we do, and how we do it. And I think we are all committed to that, whether we are farming salmon, cattle, hogs or chicken.

AnnieP    
Vancouver Island  |  August, 23, 2011 at 06:51 PM

Excellent article and particularly of interest are the comments about aquaculture. The same question arises How does one protect wild salmon by fishing them ? Feedlot is used like a dirty word by the anti protein crowd but it's just a word used to describe a farming situation afterall. Farming any meat source is a necessary enterprise in a world with millions already suffering from starvation and a population destined to reach enormous numbers by 2050.


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