Humans have been messing with life-changing technology for millennia. For instance, fire allows humans to cook their food. Though our ancient ancestors didn’t know it, heating food changes the food’s molecular structure; cooking gelatinizes starch and denatures protein, making calories more accessible to the human body than raw food does. While no one would say that fire (or my cooking) is 100 per cent safe, yet it has proven to be immensely useful to us humans (fire, not my cooking).
About 10,000 years ago, after fire and cooking, came the new technology of agriculture. Instead of people going to the food supply, they started to domesticate animals and plants, and brought the food supply to where they were. Eventually, they bred animals and plants for their needs. In other words, they had started tinkering with the genetic makeup of their food supply.
In the 1970s, a new technology arrived that will once again transform our food: Genetic Engineering (GE), also called Genetic Modification (GM). Genes, recipes for reproduction from one living thing, could be introduced into another living thing without using traditional breeding methods. GE gives food producers new ways to meet the nutritional needs of the world.
A decade ago, the AquaBounty company inserted an ‘antifreeze’ gene from a large eel-like species and a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon into an Atlantic salmon. According to AquaBounty this genetically modified fish can grow to market size in half the time of a natural salmon.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, it requires labeling “If an issue exists for the food or a constituent of the food regarding how the food is used or consequences of its use, a statement must be made on the label to describe the issue. If a bioengineered food has a significantly different nutritional property, its label must reflect the difference. If a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label.”
A panel of scientists convened by the Food and Drug Administration to weigh in on the fish’s safety has said the fish is safe to eat.
Never mind that it is safe; as David Ropeik, the author of “How Risky Is It, Really?” writes in Psychology Today, “The perception of genetically modified food is like the perception of any risk: a combination of the facts and how those facts feel, a mix of reason and gut reaction…We’re more afraid of what we can’t detect ourselves, what we don’t understand, and what we’re exposed to involuntarily.” And Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), with a mix of gut reaction and facts has come to the rescue of all Californians by introducing Assembly Bill 88 (AB 88)-“The Consumer’s Right to Know Act.” Huffman disagrees with the FDA. He proposes labeling GE salmon to warn consumers because, “Without labeling, consumers may unknowingly purchase genetically engineered salmon in spite of lingering concerns.”
Assemblymember Huffman’s “lingering concerns” notwithstanding, scientists, the U.S. government, the European Union, and others have said that GE food is as safe as any other food product.
Biochemist Simon Easterbrook-Smith bluntly dismisses fears over GE food, “There is no difference between eating a tomato containing a GM protein from fish, for example and eating an unmodified tomato with a piece of fish – in both cases there will be a mixture of tomato and fish proteins in your gut. A protein may or may not be toxic but whether it is in a GM food is irrelevant to that question.”
Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog, says this about fearing GE, “I dare say the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defense of a bizarre idea of what is ‘natural’…We make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.”
Farmed GE fish hold the promise of lessening the pressure on wild populations. Scaring people due to nebulous “lingering concerns” is a sideshow. How about fixing the broken California budget?
Now there is a real lingering concern.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest in any agricultural or bioengineering company. Though, I do enjoy genetically modified foods, sold at reasonable prices, and purchased at local markets.