Monday, September 20, 2010

Genetically Modified Salmon: Can this Marriage be Saved?

On Friday my husband and I cooked wild caught salmon over a wood fire. We enjoyed it with garden vegetables and maybe a little too much wine. When the subject of genetically modified salmon came up, I was surprised to find that we disagreed—vehemently on my part.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently holding meetings (for only two days!?) on whether or not to approve marketing of a species of salmon genetically modified  to produce growth hormones all year long instead of seasonally. Proponents argue that this fast-growing salmon would be a significant new food source whose consumption would also spare wild salmon populations. Critics are concerned about allergens in this untested food and also about what could happen if genetically modified salmon were to escape. Would their rapid growth mean that they would consume more food to the detriment of existing wild species?

My husband argued that genetic modification is nothing new. In essence that’s what agriculture and animal husbandry are—plants and animals that were modified through selective breeding by humans who wanted to have more control over their food sources. Corn and cows, as we know them, do not exist in the wild and could not survive there. Fish are already being farmed; genetic modification is just one more step. And, as my husband pointed out, we have a huge and growing population to feed. And if I don’t like the corporate model of food production, what do I propose as an alternative? Relying on the regional, organic food model alone could mean the return of famines that have only been eradicated in the last century by mass food production.

That is where I got stuck. I could only say: I don’t know. I just know that the corporate model has had a questionable effect not only on food production but also on health care, publishing, and just about any other area of human enterprise we can name. (Then we began to argue about the profit motive; I won’t go into that here.) Since that evening, I have been reflecting on what troubles me about genetic modification, in addition to questions of safety.

It troubles me that no one is considering the spirit of the salmon, a fish revered by Celts and by many Native American peoples, especially in the Northwest. The legendary Irish hero Finn Macumhail burned his finger when cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for his teacher. When he put his finger in his mouth, the salmon’s wisdom became his. The Haida people tell a story of a boy who lacked respect for the salmon and was swept away by the river. The Salmon People rescue him, teach him the error of his ways and return him to his people as a healer and a shaman.

I do not want to see anyone starve, and surely the peoples of the Northwest have long revered the salmon as a source of food. I know that with our population a return to hunting and gathering is impossible, though I am more hopeful than my husband about bio-regional food production. Urban farming is a particularly exciting movement.

What troubles me about genetic engineering is that we are considering only our own short term interests. I would like to see FDA and other authorities routinely consult shamans as well as scientists. We need to consider what the Salmon People want, what life itself wants, what the seventh generation of all species wants.

My husband and I continue to debate. I close with this email just in from him: “It does seem like the FDA isn't looking very hard. I'm still not against the idea of GE in principle, but I do think we have to be extremely careful, and our regulators appear to be bought by the industry.”

Looks like the marriage will survive. I hope the wild salmon will, too.


  1. Maeve speaking: Eliz had to take time off from her marathon reading of The Maeve Chronicles to write this post. I don't begrudge the time. Here is to the Wisdom of the Salmon.

  2. Your intuition is right on Elizabeth. I suggest reading "The Creepy Science behind GE Frankenfish"
    The revolving door between Monsanto (busy buying up traditional seed companies so everyone will have to buy their patented GE seeds every year) and the FDA is shameful.

  3. There are a whole raft of issues here. I still maintain that genetic modification is useful, if humans are to be able to feed themselves without destroying the planet.

    However, the confluence of interests between the FDA and corporations like Monsanto (it's not the only one) is more than troubling; it looks like collusion, or at best co-optation.

    One of the terribly wrong decisions FDA has made consistently is to prevent labeling of GE food, claiming even that it can be sold as "organic" in some instances. It's likely to do that with salmon.

    And yet, if corporate power was checked by adequate oversight, genetic modification of crops and animals raised for food could be a power for good, at least as far as human populations are concerned.

  4. Very interesting focus on this forever conundrum bridging science and spirit. I had never even thought about honoring the spirit of the salmon. That really spoke to me. I love the idea of consulting scientist and shaman. I fully agree. Thank you for making the food come alive on my plate, so to speak. I'll be curious if you get any ideas about how we could move forward with this. I'd love to enjoy salmon again. I'm either worried about it being being depleted or full of antibiotics. Maybe I'll start praying to the Salmon People for advice:)

  5. Elizabeth, I agree with you--I'm against genetically modified food, whether animal or vegetable. We simply don't know enough about the ramifications of genetic modification to predict what will happen. I keep thinking of Jurassic Park and the runaway experimentation with dinosaur cloning, and the oft-repeated dictum of one of the characters: "Just because you *can* do something doesn't mean you *should* do it.

    Yes, it is difficult to answer the question, "Well, what do YOU recommend?" Perhaps we should eat LESS meat, fowl, and fish. Perhaps we should eat each of those food groups only once a week, and vegetables and grain the rest of the time. I'd be willing to do that. Then there would be more to go around.

    And of course, human beings can always limit our own population, so fewer of us will need to be fed!

  6. my understanding of GE is that it is different from breeding selectively in that no new species genetics is introduced and there is no external tampering with the genetic sequence... the growth hormone may just make super fast growing salmon but also may be excreted in the fishes poo and then eaten by organisms who react in unknown ways...
    the cycle of life has many many many secrets from scientists and there is no way of knowing what tampering with the building blocks of nature will do...

    It is a huge debate here in NZ - we have a very vehement anti GE faction - i went to the royal commission on GE about 10 year ago and could not put into words why i knew it was wrong to open the gates to that particular change on behalf of humanity... but my gut says no.