Three environmental sociologists ask: Why are we genetically engineering salmon at all?

EXCERPT: It is of utmost importance that the larger context of the FDA’s decision on genetically engineered salmon be considered. Claims regarding improving human well-being or environmental sustainability should be viewed with caution, especially when the ultimate aim is to advance the financial interests of a few firms.

Can genetically engineered salmon really help feed the hungry and save the planet?

by Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, Brett Clark
Counterpunch, 23 Dec 2015

Salmon has become the world’s first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption, given the recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This action has reignited the debates about food, hunger, health, and the environment.

The prevailing questions that are circulating with the FDA announcement include: Are genetically engineered salmon safe for human consumption? Will they produce more food for the hungry? Can they reduce environmental costs associated with food production? These questions are important to consider. However, it is also necessary to ask: Why are we genetically engineering salmon at all?

When considering the issue from this perspective, we borrow from the great sociologist Eugene Rosa in suggesting that “context matters!” The socioeconomic context influences the development of biotechnology, and shapes how it is employed and for what end.

Producing genetically modified organisms involves transferring genes from one organism to another. In this case, genes from the Atlantic salmon have been blended with an eel-like species called the ocean pout, and a salmon native to the Pacific Ocean, the Chinook. The result is a genetically engineered fish that grows at twice the rate of an Atlantic salmon, reaching a harvestable size in about eighteen months instead of three years.

Genetically engineered salmon did not develop in a social vacuum. The employment of this powerful technology to fish follows a pattern that is evident in the development of land-based agricultural crops, where the intensification of production led to genetic modification of plants to further agri-business opportunities.

Previously, increasing the quality and quantity of agriculture crops relied on selective plant breeding. This approach was followed by hybridization, which initiated farmers’ reliance on seed manufacturers, as hybrid seeds needed to be purchased year after year. The most recent step has been the widespread production of herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered corn and soy, which has been a boon for seed and herbicide producers (in the case of Monsanto, it is one in the same) and has furthered farmers’ dependence on agri-business giants.

The proponents of biotechnology argue that these developments are necessary to feed the world’s population and to address social and environmental problems. Thus far, genetic engineering has not realized these goals. According to the United Nations about 800 million people in the world were chronically undernourished during 2012-2014. Over the last several decades, global environmental problems, including those associated with food production, have increased.

It would be naive to assume that the production of genetically engineered animals and the associated outcomes would alleviate such problems or that it will have drastically different outcomes than we have seen in relation to genetically engineered crops. The larger context in which this is occurring is a global food system that is driven by the mass production of commodities, where decisions are based on potential profits, not environmental or human welfare. In our work we have generally referred to the social and ecological costs associated with commodification as “the tragedy of the commodity”. It is this tendency toward tragedy related to the commodification of everything that informs our skepticism, not a reactionary response to new technologies.

To determine whether genetically engineered salmon will reduce hunger, we must consider for whom it is being produced. People who purchase salmon fillets are mainly located in wealthy nations, where purchasing power is strong and markets are already established. The development of genetically engineered salmon, which includes significant investment in research, offers an opportunity to further expand sales of salmon by providing a high-end food commodity to an affluent population, not protein-poor, hungry populaces.

It is widely recognized that food insecurity is largely an issue of food distribution, not a problem of production. There is enough food annually produced to feed the planet, albeit with an array of environmentally problematic practices. People are generally hungry due to impoverishment, reducing food access. Since, in modern society, food is considered as a commodity like all others, some will not have the means to purchase enough for themselves and their families.

Will genetically engineered salmon alleviate environmental demands? While it is too early to identify the full range of environmental impacts, it is worthwhile to consider some general ecological concerns. The proposed production process for genetically modified salmon will require the consumption of significant amounts of fossil fuel. Genetically engineered salmon will be reared in Canada and the juvenile fish will then be transported to a facility in Panama to mature. Once they grow, they will be harvested and shipped to the United States for sale. This operation, which involves shipping from country to country, creates a fossil-fuel intensive infrastructure. The inland containment pools that will be used to raise these salmon will require constant water circulation, climate control, and routine cleaning, all increasing the energy requirements.

There are also concerns associated with genetically engineered salmon escaping into the wild. According to industry, the chances are very small (about 1 percent chance) that genetically engineered fish that are made sterile could breed in the wild, particularly in the warm Caribbean waters. A history of unintended consequences with biotechnology gives reason for caution, such as the recent rise of “superweeds” associated with herbicide-resistant crops. Such an event could be devastating for wild salmon populations and ocean ecosystems as whole. Further, if the technology expands as industry would like, production will surely spread to other parts of the world.

The desired outcome of creating this genetically modified organism is to speed-up production, increase salmon consumption, and amass wealth for biotechnology companies in the food sector. The environmental benefits of genetically engineered salmon are supposed to arise from the fact that they will require less production inputs, such as feed, to grow to maturity. However, if sales of genetically engineered salmon increase in a manner that would please industry, the expansion in the overall production of fish could outpace the gains made in efficiency, resulting in an overall increase in total resources consumed.

Dr. Ron Stotish, chief executive of AquaBounty, the biotech company creating the genetically engineered salmon, declares that the FDA approval is “a game-changer that brings healthy and nutritious food to consumers in an environmentally responsible manner without damaging the ocean and other marine habitats”. We agree that it is a game-changer, but not in the manner suggested by industry. It changes the rules of the game, undermining previously established protections of people and the environment. With no labeling requirements, the approval signifies a disregard for the public’s right to know about their food choices.

It is of utmost importance that the larger context of the FDA’s decision on genetically engineered salmon be considered. Claims regarding improving human well-being or environmental sustainability should be viewed with caution, especially when the ultimate aim is to advance the financial interests of a few firms.

Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark are environmental sociologists and the authors of the recent book, The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, published by Rutgers University Press.