Let Them Eat Frankenfish!

After 15 years, the FDA is about to let genetically modified fish enter the food supply. It's about time.

We humans developed a bad habit of killing too many fish. But it's their own fault. Aside from being delicious, they're lazy. Atlantic salmon, for instance—one of the tastiest, fattiest fish—attain full size only after years of maturation. Did I mention they're delicious?

But humans are eating too many of them. And while dedicated enviros go vegetarian, most of us just want to order another slab of succulent, heart-healthy omega-3s without thinking too much. Enter modern science. In the early 1990s, a merry band of geneticists inserted a gene from fast-growing Chinook salmon into slow-growing Atlantic salmon (along with a gene from another fish famed for cold-water tolerance). The result: so-called "super salmon," which grow to full size in nearly half the time. The altered species entered the federal approval process in 1995, and have been swimming upstream ever since.

On Monday, a panel of FDA advisers began two days of hearings on whether to allow the first genetically modified (GM) animal into the human food supply. And so far, they are skeptical. Such unnatural creatures have existed since the 1970s, but haven't become part of the common cuisine—and despite the protests of natural foodies everywhere, this needs to change.

Yes, messing around with DNA is serious business, and the registered trademark symbol at the end of "AquAdvantage® Salmon" is a little creepy. The equally unpleasant word "Frankenfish" has been floating around the blogosphere atop scare stories about the future of food. And there is serious (and legitimate) concern that modified fish will sneak out of their aquaculture pens and join Atlantic salmon for wild aquatic sex parties, crossbreeding with—and potentially out-competing—their genetically pure peers. The specter of piscine promiscuity understandably makes people nervous.

But they needn't worry. The FDA briefing packet is clear that years of study have found no reason to keep tweaked seafood off the market. Salmon 2.0 will be grown in isolation on land, far away from Salmon Classic, and—even if one or two make a break for it—it's unclear how serious the effects of minor cross-contamination would be. We've grown genetically modified crops in America, such as corn and soy, since the early 1990s—exercising similar caution with the locations of fields—without any serious damage to genetic diversity or incidents of runaway genes. As an extra layer of insurance, the salmon eggs will grow into sterile females only, making freelance reproduction extremely unlikely.

Concerns about risks to human health are less well-founded. The remote chance of new allergens—a fear thoroughly investigated by the FDA—is offset by the known health benefits of eating more salmon. Government experts have essentially concluded that if it looks and acts like Atlantic salmon, contains "the expected amounts of nutritionally important omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids at the appropriate ratio," and is "as safe to eat as food from other Atlantic salmon," it might as well be labeled as such.

Instead of endangering the ecosystem, salmon 2.0 will protect it. Irresponsible human behavior caused overfishing and shortages, but clever human invention has discovered a way to fix these problems. As we learned to do in kindergarten, we're cleaning up our own mess. Don't worry, just dig in and feel good about your healthy dinner and your environmental impact. (For extra flavor, try serving with a homemade salsa—genetically-modified tomatoes, naturally.)

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason. This article originally appeared at Esquire.com on September 21, 2010. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is Managing Editor, Reason





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