“Food” for thought

Are genetically engineered salmon still salmon?

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you, AquAdvantage salmon—genetically tweaked to grow twice as fast, thanks to a recombinant DNA construct from Chinook salmon and a promoter from an ocean pout. Hungry yet? Technically, it is food.

This past November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the fish—developed by AquaBounty—for sale and consumption, making it the first genetically engineered meat to be deemed OK for American plates. Finding no material difference—defined on its website as “nutritional profile” or “functional properties”—between the genetically engineered salmon and traditionally farmed salmon, the FDA did not include a requirement for labeling to distinguish the genetically engineered salmon from other varieties. However, in December, Congress’ spending bill included restrictions of the sale of genetically engineered salmon until the FDA implements mandatory labeling requirements.

The FDA says that AquAdvantage salmon is safe to eat and AquaBounty’s Panama-based inland farms’ physical and biological containment measures—layers of redundant nets and filters, surrounding waterways with inhospitable saline and temperature levels, and a reproductively sterile (all female) population—make the genetically engineered salmon’s escape into nature and subsequent breeding with wild populations “highly unlikely.”

While Congress stalled the sale of the first genetically engineered meat, we’ve been eating other genetically engineered foods—with no required labeling—for more than two decades. According to the USDA, 94 percent of soybeans and 92 percent of corn planted in the U.S. is genetically engineered. Other widespread genetically engineered crops include potatoes, apples and squash.

Despite their unlabeled prevalence on supermarket shelves, a 2014 Consumer Reports National Research Center study found 92 percent of people believed genetically engineered food should have legally required labeling, while 72 percent said it was “very important/important” to avoid genetically engineered products when shopping.

While social consciousness is outside the FDA’s jurisdiction—and often beyond Congress’ comprehension—20 years after the introduction of genetically modified foods, corporations, lawmakers and decision-makers have yet to assuage our fears over the morality and wisdom of producing and consuming genetically engineered food.

Whether it’s just a mild “ick” reaction to dinner via DNA tinkering or an ethical affront to the natural world, the powers-that-be have been more concerned with whether we can, rather than whether we should, eat genetically engineered foods.

Perhaps the FDA could sit around the dinner table with AquaBounty staff and chow down on plates of obese, teenage salmon drizzled with DNA demi-glace? (Maybe wash it down with a glass of water while dining with Dayne Walling, former mayor of Flint, Mich?) Let’s see who chokes first as they try and cram genetically engineered salmon down the public’s throat.

Of course, the real motive is profit and gaining a competitive edge in the market.

Consider the chicken. A supermarket-brand chicken breast—factory-farmed by a national company allowing for loss leaders—is sold for one-third the price of an organic, free-range chicken breast from a local farm. The latter is a healthier and more sustainable alternative but is cost-prohibitive to the majority of Americans, who are left to the hormone-injected breasts of progress.

A similar price gap will arise between regulated, seasonal wild salmon and genetically engineered varieties, which will be kept inexpensive year-round through technological advancement and steady supply.

Unless no one buys the damn stuff. Despite corporations’ swimming pools of money, the Scrooge McDucks still covet our spare change, making our dollars in the free market the last true democracy.

We didn’t get to vote on whether genetically engineered salmon appeared on the menu, but as long as it’s labeled, we sure as hell don’t have to order it.