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Debate: IntraFish editors battle over GM salmon

Read two IntraFish editors go head-to-head over the GM salmon labeling debate.

Drew Cherry: The continuing battle over the future of GM salmon sparked a heated debate among the IntraFish team on our Skype string. Given that Executive Editor John Fiorillo and Editor Rachel Mutter were so passionate about their arguments in their recent columns, we thought we'd give the debate more space. Here's a lightly edited version.

Click here to read IntraFish's extensive coverage of the GM salmon issue.

Elisabeth Fischer: Nice column Rachel! You’ve got some solid arguments in there for AquaBounty’s strategy to choose not to reveal where its GM salmon was sold, and your point about food security is a critical one. But as a consumer I’d still want to make my own choice of what comes onto my dinner plate and I can’t get my head around eating GM salmon – or any other GM food – anytime soon. I’m quite literally torn between your and John’s arguments.

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John Fiorillo: And that is my main point. Label the fish.

Rachel Mutter: Yes, you made that point very clearly, John. But what exactly is your problem with GM food?

John Fiorillo: If you read my column, Rachel, you would see I have no problem with GM salmon in the market -- or any other GM food -- but I want to have it identified.

Rachel Mutter: Because then you would know not to buy it?

John Fiorillo: Then I could choose not to.

Rachel Mutter: But who would choose to eat GM food? And that's not to say there's anything wrong with GM food (you just said that), but consumers are not scientists, we are not in a position to make that decision. We entrust that decision to scientists, to experts -- impartial experts -- who can make that call. I think it's pretty arrogant to assume we know better than scientists and food safety experts.

John Fiorillo: Ok, so you are saying because a consumer isn't educated to the highest levels of biological science that they should not be trusted to make their own food choices. Please! Because science has never steered us wrong before. I prefer to choose what goes into my body and to do so I like information about the products I buy.

At what point do you think AquaBounty is responsible for identifying the product? Next year? 10 years from now? Never ever? When donkeys fly?

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Rachel Mutter: Now you're just being silly. Genetically modifying food isn't the same as adding stone-ground acai to your protein shakes, John. You're not in a position to make a call on it -- you don't know what it means. And that is my point: why make something so complex a consumer decision?

When countries decide that Additive B632 (I made that up) is safe for food manufacturers to add to food, they don't consult the general public... and yes, it is written in the ingredients, but its name and derivatives are pointless because no-one understands the implication. They have entrusted that to food scientists. The problem with GM is that no-one understands the implications, but the very label is loaded with misconceptions. So it is unecessarily damaging to put it on the packet.

John, are you there? Bladder playing up again?

John Fiorillo: Well there might be ingredients in products that I have no knowledge of but still are on the label and I can decide if I want to buy them or not.

Rachel Mutter: Let me ask you something: Where do you shop?

John Fiorillo: Fred Meyer's for most of my groceries. It is a Kroger-owned store.

Rachel Mutter: OK... Googling your weird American grocery store. Ah, so this is a fancy-schmantzy 'sustainable' grocery store.

John Fiorillo: It is not. Not at all.

Rachel Mutter: Well, that's what it says on Wikipedia.

John Fiorillo: [smiley emoji]

Elisabeth Fischer: You're getting off track guys. What's your point, Rachel?

Rachel Mutter: Why do you shop there, John?

John Fiorillo: Good prices, discounts on gasoline based on my purchases. Great selection. Good food.

Rachel Mutter: No, you shop there because you trust what they line their shelves with, on quality, on price and on food safety. Most people entrust decisions about these things to the supermarket they shop at. And that, in my mind, is where the labeling of GM should stop: the supermarkets and restaurants. It's like trusting your doctor to give you the right drugs; you don't research every active ingredient.

John Fiorillo: Nice cop out, but that is not the case and you know it. Of course I am not going to buy food from a suspect store -- no one would -- but that does not mean I trust the store for everything. I trust many of the brands they sell because I know what these brands put in their products. At the store I shop, the seafood is s***. I never buy seafood there. So, no, I don't trust the retailer to make my buying decisions for me. I trust the retailer to provide me with food-buying options -- from which I can choose.

Rachel Mutter: You choose, you snooze.

John Fiorillo: Nice.

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Rachel Mutter: I'm interested to know how we are going to make any scientific progress in food production. Or don't you like progress, John? Maybe it's your age.

Elisabeth Fischer: That was way below the belt, Rachel.

Rachel Mutter: Sorry.

John Fiorillo: So should other farmed salmon companies now have to label their product non-GMO to make sure it is not confused with AquaBounty fish in the market? Because that is what is being done, and I don't see how that addresses your point on science and the ignorant consumer. Of course they will buy the non-GMO, whether AquaBounty labels theirs or not.

Rachel Mutter: So you think not labeling Aquabounty salmon as GM is going to stop everyone buying all salmon? Just in case? I think any salmon farmer labeling their product as "non-GM" is over-reacting. Plus, I'd be interested to see how many of these anti-GM salmon farmers aren't seeking out a piece of that gene modification themselves 10 years down the line, when the capacity of Norwegian salmon farms has reached breaking point and their only option is to move everything to expensive offshore solutions in order to grow their production.

It smacks of the whole land-based debacle: they're all SOOOO against it, until they're suddenly not, because it's going to increase their production and make them money. [cash emoji]

John Fiorillo: I agree, and I am not saying the technology won't potentially become more ubiquitous in the future -- although that is not a sure bet yet. What I am saying is that the product needs to be identified for consumers.

Rachel Mutter: But if consumers know what it is, they won't buy it, and then we're all back to square one.

Elisabeth Fischer: John what do you think about Rachel's point she made about future food security? Will GM food have to play a role?

John Fiorillo: I am skeptical. So right now do we believe GM salmon will be produced at levels to feed the planet. I don't. It is being grown on land, which is limiting to begin with. Maybe it will move to sea cages some day, but where? Will Norway or Chile put it in their water? Don't know. And which markets are the fish being sold in? Developed western markets, where there is no food scarcity. I have not seen any evidence to show that this product is going to become a massive commodity to feed developing worlds, where food security is a major concern.

Elisabeth Fischer: That's a good point, actually.

Rachel Mutter: Pft.

John Fiorillo: Why didn't AquaBounty start producing in China where regs are a lot lighter?

Rachel Mutter: Damn, John has had his beetroot juice this morning.

John Fiorillo: They could pump out all they want there, conceivably.

Rachel Mutter: Well, I actually think the Chinese seafood market is moving in the opposite direction, but that is maybe by the by.

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John Fiorillo: Look, the folks at AquaBounty told me I was naive about business when I wrote my column critical of them. But I say they missed a golden opportunity. Whether they like it or not, they are the tip of the spear on GM salmon right now. They have to help educate consumers -- something you are so in love with Rachel.

So given the tremendous -- and I mean tremendous -- amount of press coverage the story of them sneaking the product into the market received, they could have used that free press to begin educating consumers. They could have reached out to journalists and worked on clarifying the cloud hanging over GM. Opportunity lost. They might not get that window for free marketing every again.

Rachel Mutter: Can I speak?

John Fiorillo: Please do.

Rachel Mutter: In a world of fairies and rainbows and chocolate bunnies that is exactly how that would have worked...an "opportunity to educate consumers."

John Fiorillo: Thanks for conceding my point.

Rachel Mutter: But get real! No consumer is going to listen to the company producing something with as loaded a reputation (unfounded reputation, I might add) as GM salmon about how great and safe their product is. AquaBounty has been trying that for the last 20 years, and it hasn't worked. I imagine they started off life as starry-eyed as you, John.

John Fiorillo: So better to be secretive.

Drew Cherry: OK, OK...before this gets any uglier, I think it's time for closing arguments. And I'm keeping my mouth shut otherwise. It's dangerous in here.

Rachel Mutter: So I am playing devil's advocate to an extent, however, I do stand by my main point: that the success or failure of something that has been so rigorously tested, examined and regulated by experts in their field (I know we don't like experts now that we have the Internet, but stick with me) and that could fundamentally improve food production for the future should not be left at the whim of ill-informed consumers who get all their food safety information from Pigswiththreeheads.com or The Daily Mail.

John Fiorillo: The experts have weighed in and they found the AquaBounty science sound, but that does not mean the product must now be accepted by the consumer. Consumers get to decide how they want to spend their money. AquaBounty has spent 20 years proving the science to a generally accepted level, but it needs to spend some time educating consumers about its product and the benefits it offers. And that doesn't get done by sneaking the product through the market and hoping no one notices, and getting insulted and combative when someone has the gall to ask questions.

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