Why we really need the #Frankenfish

Image courtesy of Avaaz

Image courtesy of Avaaz

Avaaz’s latest campaign to stop a genetically modified breed of salmon from being approved as fit for human consumption is a massively unhelpful contribution to the debate about genetic modification.

The email I got from Avaaz on Friday, wittily titled ‘Attack of the Frankenfish’, was full of the kind of hysterical language and panic-mongering you’d be more accustomed to reading in The Daily Mail. The petition, which is at 670,802 signatures at the time of writing, lays out the risks of this new breed of genetically modified salmon – which grows faster than normal – and asks you to call on the US Food and Drug Administration not to approve ‘transgenic salmon’ for human consumption.

I’m not suggesting that there are no risks involved in eating genetically modified animals. But Avaaz’s scare tactics don’t help the debate on genetic modification move forward. Instead, they perpetuate a knee-jerk reaction in consumers, who see genetic modification/GM/GMO as something scary and dangerous and to be stopped before it is too late.

The reality is that, without genetic modification, and with the big population rises that experts are predicting (i.e. there’ll be 2 billion more of us on the planet by 2050), we simply will not be able to eat meat and fish in the future. Either many species will have been eaten out of existence or the cost of eating meat and fish will have risen so high that only the ultra-rich will be able to afford it, leaving the rest of us to eke out a low-protein existence elsewhere.

So what are the problems with genetically modified salmon? Well, the Avaaz petition points to three. Licensing genetically modified salmon for human consumption could:

  1. Wipe out natural marine species (if, by some accident, modified species escaped into the wild, we don’t know what effect that would have on natural species);
  2. Threaten human health, because we don’t know enough about the long-term consequences of eating animals that have been artificially modified;
  3. Open the floodgates for genetically modified animals worldwide (only a bad thing if you accept that genetically modified species are bad full stop).

Of course, these (apart from the last one) are genuine concerns, and I am not attempting to dismiss them here. This great fact sheet from Food and Water Watch explains in much more detail these and other key concerns with the production and consumption of genetically modified fish.

For me, the real big concerns with genetic modification are to do with who ‘owns’ these fish. After all, a key justification for genetic modification is that it will help us to feed the world, and if big companies have control over whole vital new species of crops or fish or animals, this will be entirely counterproductive.

In spite of these potential problems, the world has no choice but to see genetic modification as part of the solution to feeding an ever-growing population as the world’s resources grow ever more strained.

We know full well that the 7 billion people already living on the planet cannot consume in the unsustainable way that the richer percentage of them do. We also know that, by 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet – and an ever increasing number of them will want to eat ‘western-style’ diets rich in meat and dairy as they climb out of poverty.

With this knowledge in mind, what else can we do but look at genetic modification as an alternative way to produce meat and fish? It might be environmentally or morally preferable to impose worldwide vegetarianism, but that’s a) not likely to happen and b) not exactly fair on those who already struggle to get enough protein in their diets as it is.

I don’t know if the salmon in question should be certified fit for human consumption – I’m no expert and I haven’t read the evidence. But we need to get to a point where genetically modified meat and fish are an acceptable and palatable alternative for consumers – and we need to get there fast, because time is running out.