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Eating Frankenfish? The GM Seafood Debate

March 27, 2013
Logo for FoE's Campaign against genetically modified salmon.

Logo for FoE’s Campaign against genetically modified salmon.

The latest chapter of the debate over genetically modified organisms centers on the FDA’s recent decision to approve genetically modified salmon. The decision prompted Friends of the Earth to launch a new campaign to encourage grocers to refrain from stocking the new salmon, which matures in 16 to 18 months rather than the 30 months required by traditional varieties. Already, several major grocers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Aldi, and Marsh have said they will not stock GM seafood. Activists are pressuring larger chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco, and Safeway to follow suit.

Blogging at the Atlantic, Zachary Karabell recently encouraged activists to drop their campaign, calling on them to “drop their war on genetically modified foods.” Karabell’s post was interesting, but fell into the traditional framing of opponents of genetically modified foods as luddites with an irrational fear technology that will condemn millions to starvation. According to Karabell, “GMOs may solve a key problem and enable global growth. They may solve the Malthusian conundrum, and prevent what people have been fearing for centuries — namely that the earth cannot support more than a certain number of humans consuming what they consume. Still, GMOs are widely distrusted, even hated.”

Yet as Karabell concedes, the problem of hunger is not one of supply but of distribution; there is enough food to feed the world’s seven billion people, yet millions go hungry every day. And what’s more, Karabell also concedes that the current generation of genetically modified foods do little to address the real challenges faced by the global poor. And yet Karabell still concludes,

With GMOs, we are faced with a greater-good question: Should we use all means available to allow billions of new inhabitants of the planet to enjoy adequate and even abundant food, so they can have the same opportunities and advantages as the affluent developed world? Or should we shun these technologies because of concerns about resilience and diversity, risking widespread famine if alternate tools do not produce sufficient yields? Or is there a third way, hoping that human behavior and patterns of consumption change on a global scale more quickly than we are able to exhaust the food supply?

The fundamental problem with Karabell’s framing of the question is that envisions all opposition to genetically modified foods as a simple binary; people either are willing to accept all genetically modified foods, or they reject all such foods as “Frankenfoods.” But, as the final question Karaball poses suggests, a third way is possible.

My opposition to the current generation of genetically modified foods is not a function of the technology itself, but of the broader context of its development and adoption. The current framework within which GM foods are developed does little to address the challenges faced by the world’s poor. I would be supportive of drought tolerant, higher yielding GE seeds developed using public funding and made available without patent restrictions to farmers in the global south.

But that’s not what our current system of plant breeding is really intended to produce. Commercial plant breeders like Monsanto are concerned above all with producing profits. This is why we have (patented) Roundup Ready and Bt crops, not (unpatented) drought and saline tolerant crops. This is why research focuses on soy, corn, cotton, and canola and not sorghum, millet, quinoa, and cassava.

What we need, in other words, is not a yes or no on genetically modified crops. What we need is a smart strategy of addressing the needs of the world’s farmers. And that means quality seeds suited for local conditions and dietary preferences that come without the high cost of patent rights. And that’s precisely the thing that our current system of plant breeding—particularly with its focus on genetically modified seeds—is unlikely to produce.

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2 Comments
  1. Hi Noah. Allow us to push back a little?
    1. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, and Marsh all carry farmed Atlantic salmon. This makes them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. In our view, whether or not Walmart carries GMO salmon is irrelevant. The more important issue is farmed vs wild salmon.
    2. Similarly, the distinction between whether the world’s food shortage problems are one of supply or distribution is a red herring. With 7.1 billion people on the planet, there will inevitably be many who live far from locales where food is produced. The problem is overpopulation. It will not be “fixed” in any meaningful, sustainable way through modifying delivery systems, increasing food production, or changing dietary habits. A forest felled is a forest felled, and it doesn’t matter whether the forest has been converted into soy bean production or cattle grazing. That forest – and the biodiversity and clean water that went with it – are gone.
    3. The problem with GMO’s is not, in our view, that they are somehow “unsafe” to consume. The issue is sustainability and their impact on the environment, and here it gets a bit complex. Consider salmon. As the world increasingly accepts and relies upon farmed salmon, the world’s wild salmon stocks are being undermined. In the short term, farmed salmon is cheaper. This devalues wild salmon, and when wild salmon are devalued, so are their environs. Thus there is less incentive to keep the rivers they need clean and free. As we increasingly allow these natural ecosystems to deteriorate, wild fish numbers decline – thus increasing the need for farmed salmon. More farm salmon mean more salmon farms, the salmon farms themselves hurt wild fish, and so on and so forth.
    Where we appear to be heading with this is the demise of wild salmon.
    At this point, the GMO issue becomes relevant. The restoration of wild salmon is virtually impossible without wild salmon DNA unique to each ecosystem. GMO salmon will lack this DNA, so that even IF we were to clean up our rivers, we’d have no salmon to repopulate them with. They tell us that modern corn would die out without humankind farming it. In similar fashion, GMO salmon, even if they were to escape, are more likely to swim in aimless circles and die than they are to ascend a river and renew the life-cycle.
    Meanwhile… In Scotland, where Atlantic salmon farms have been placed at the mouths of salmon rivers, wild fish Atlantic salmon are disappearing.
    Canada is allowing Atlantic salmon to be farmed on its west coast – in British Columbia! In our view, this is insane. Those rivers used to be full of wild Pacific salmon, and there is ample evidence indicating that these Atlantic salmon farms are hurting those wild fish populations.
    Other farmed Atlantic salmon is imported from the four corners of the world – invariably at prices that undercut the value of our wild fish.
    It is our hope that people will cease overly-focusing on GMO salmon and come to understand that farmed salmon in their entirety are not part of any solution. Every time a person hands over money for farmed salmon, another step is taken toward ensuring that mega food companies have a lockdown on our food sources.

    • Thanks very much for your response! I think we’re probably in greater agreement that your feedback suggests. Indeed, your comment highlights the interconnected nature of the problems posed by our global food system.

      I agree that farmed salmon presents a major problem for the sustainability of wild salmon stocks, and your post captures both the ecological and economic reasons for this. I think a parallel case can be made for traditional (heirloom) varieties of many of the foods we eat. Monocultures (and the economic system that socializes their costs and privatizes their profits) are the fundamental threat to our global food supply. This is true both for agricultural crops and fisheries. Thus I see the Friends of the Earth campaign against GE salmon as but one front in the broader struggle for real food.

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