Stories tagged marii

Sep
16
2010

An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).
An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).Courtesy Hans-Petter Fjeld
Buckle up, Buzzketeers, because school is in session.

Did I just mix metaphors? No! You wear seatbelts in my school, because they help prevent you from exploding.

But you will probably explode anyway, because you are going to get taught. By JGordon. About the future.

Here’s your background reading: a GMO is a genetically modified organism—a living thing whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years (by selectively breeding them for desired characteristics), but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve gotten really fancy and fast about it.

While in the past, or what I like to call “the boring old days,” it took generations to breed crops that produced high yields, grew faster, or needed less water, we can now do that sort of thing in an afternoon. (Well, not really an afternoon, but these aren’t the boring old days, so we should feel free to use hyperbolic language.) We can insert genes from one plant into another, bestowing resistance to pests or poisons, or increasing the nutrition of a food crop.

Pretty cool, right? Maybe. GMOs tend to make people uncomfortable. Emotionally. They get freaked out at the thought of eating something that they imagine was created like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people prefer to eat stuff that was created the old fashion way: through SEX.

Once they’re in your tummy, GMOs are probably pretty much the same as any other food, really. However, there may be other reasons to approach them cautiously. Most organisms make a place for themselves in their environment, and their environment makes a place around them, and things tend to work pretty well together. But GMOs are brand new organisms, and it can be very difficult to tell how they’ll fit into the rest of the natural world. Will they out-compete “natural” organisms, and cause them to go extinct? Will they interbreed with them, and introduce new weaknesses to previously strong species? The repercussions of such events could be… well, very bad.

On the other hand, GMOs could provide food—better, more nutritious, easier to grow food—for people and places that really need it. And with global population expected to increase by a few billion people before it stabilizes, we’re going to need a lot of food.

Just like everything else, this stuff is complicated. Really complicated. But the issue isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable with it before it pushes ahead. Hence, our main event: GMO salmon.

You might not have devoted much mental space as of yet to mutant ninja salmon, but you will. See, transgenic salmon (i.e., salmon with genes from other animals) may be the first GMO animal on your dinner plate. Or whatever plate you use for whenever you eat salmon. If you even use a plate, you animal.

What’s the point of the GMO salmon? In the right conditions, they grow much faster than their normal counterparts, and they require about 10% less food to reach the same weight as normal salmon. The company responsible for them, AquaBounty, has been working on the project for more than 20 years. Inserted into a commonly farmed species, the Atlantic salmon, the final, successful combination of genes comes from Chinook salmon (a closely related, but much larger species) and the ocean pout (a slightly eel-like fish that can tolerate very cold water). While Atlantic salmon typically only grow during the summer, the new variation produces growth hormones year round, so they can grow to marketable size in about 60% of the time it would normally take, assuming they’re kept in water that’s at the right temperature, and given plenty of food year round.

While some people object to GMO foods on the grounds that the long-term effects from eating them are unknown, probably the more salient argument is the effect they might have on the natural world. A larger, faster growing species could put tremendous pressure on already stressed, wild Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty counters that in normal ocean temperatures, the GMO salmon would grow no faster than wild salmon. Also, all of the GMO salmon are female, and 95 to 99% of them are sterile (they can’t reproduce). And none of that should matter, because the salmon will be raised in tanks, away from the ocean.

Even if they are successfully isolated from wild salmon, opponents point out, that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the environment. See, salmon eat other fish, and it takes about 2 pounds of other fish to make one pound of salmon (according to this article on the GMO salmon). Large amounts of the kinds of fish people don’t eat are caught and processed to feed farm-raised salmon. If cheaper, fast-growing salmon cause the demand for salmon to rise, more food stock fish will have to be caught to supply the farms, putting pressure on these other species.

A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...
A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...Courtesy Dark jedi requiem
Then again, if the GMO salmon can be raised successfully and profitably in inland tanks, it could remove other negative environmental impacts. Aquaculture fish farms are typically in larger bodies of water, with the fish contained inside a ring of nets. The high concentration of fish in one area leads to more diseases and parasites, which can spread to nearby wild fish. Salmon farms also produce lots of waste, and it’s all concentrated in one spot. Supposedly, a farm of 200,000 salmon produces more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. (That’s what they say—it sounds like a load of crap to me, though.)

It’s a tricky subject, and anyone who says otherwise is being tricky (ironically). Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Food and Drug Administration will soon declare this particular GMO as officially safe to eat, and GMO salmon fillets could make their way to the supermarket in the next couple years. Even if the FDA didn’t approve the fish, however, that would only mean that it couldn’t be sold in the US—the operation could continue to produce fish for international markets.

GMO salmon are just the tip of the GMO animal iceberg (if you’ll forgive the iceberg analogy—I don’t mean to imply that they are going to sink us.) The next GMO in line for FDA approval, probably, is the so-called “enviropig,” a GMO pig with a greater capability to digest phosphorus. This should reduce feed costs, and significantly lower the phosphorus content of the manure produced by the pigs. That’s important because phosphorus from manure often leaches into bodies of water, fertilizing microorganisms, which, in turn, reproduce in massive numbers and suffocate other aquatic life.

As the human population grows and needs more food, genetically engineered plants and animals are going to become increasingly common. They might make the process of feeding and clothing ourselves easier and more sustainable. Or they might royally screw things up. Or both. So start thinking about these things, and start thinking about them carefully.

Er… so what do you think about GMOs? Are they a good idea? Are they a good idea for certain applications? Are they a bad idea? Why? Scroll down to the comments section, and let’s have it!