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In defense of the GM salmon 'cowards'

Leaving decisions about our food security in the hands of Joe Bloggs is not in the public interest.

A few weeks ago, my colleague John Fiorillo wrote a column attacking GM salmon producer AquaBounty and the supply chain for avoiding the labeling of its GM fish on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.

On reading it, I felt a surge of discomfort. But I struggled to rationalize the feeling with an argument I felt comfortable making in the public arena.

However, on listening to our latest podcast and hearing further discussion on the topic by my colleagues and others in and outside of the industry, I feel compelled to try. So here goes.

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John ended the podcast with this: “Label it. They’ll decide for themselves. And we’ll move on.” And he's right. That is exactly how that scenario would play out.

They label it. They decide for themselves. And AquaBounty and a solid attempt at future food security goes bankrupt.

Is this really, as a science-based civilization, what we need to happen?

While I agree with the notion of full transparency, the problem AquaBounty is trying to avoid is this: faced with a product that is labeled as GM and one that is not, we all know which a consumer would buy.

Who in their right mind is going to choose a "genetically-modified" product over a “natural” one? I wouldn't, and likely you wouldn't either, but I would struggle to explain my rationale in making that decision.

Basically, choosing GM goes against years and years of ingrained messaging by the food industry that the best products are “natural” and anything adjusted, added to or not presented in a hemp basket with a side of quinoa and pomegranate seeds, is of the devil's own making. And the seafood industry has played this game with the best of them.

In a recent We Tried It, my colleague Dominic Welling noted the JSC Fish farmed salmon product he sampled was described as “100 percent Natural Atlantic Salmon caught in cool clean northern waters.”


OK, so it's not incorrect as such, but it's very consciously skewing the reality of the product's provenance. How is this OK, but AquaBounty not labeling its product as genetically modified, is not?

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It’s a double standard birthed in the seafood industry’s panic about any further bad associations. I can’t entirely blame it -- its product, often unfairly, gets a bad rap.

Unfortunately the real answer to this, however, is not by degrees of separation but rather a joint and massive effort to educate consumers and change their preconceptions about food production, whether that be around the social impact of fishing, the environmental impact of farming or the nutritional safety and ethics of GM foods.

And efforts are certainly being made towards this, but in the face of unregulated social and fake media (actual fake media), in which experts are dismissed and everyone has an opinion, it is slow and often fruitless work.

In the meantime, what the sector (and John Fiorillo) is expecting AquaBounty to do is to step out into the cold and take account of the very brutal reality the seafood industry in general has been consciously avoiding… that full and frank honesty about where their product comes from will open a Pandora's box of public pre- and mis-conceptions about what this means. Pre- and mis-conceptions they don't have the funds or power to change overnight.

So, until this work has been done and the rational result achieved, and while we exist in a maelstrom of misinformation and scare stories, maybe it is in the best interests of society that we leave complex decision making about the future of our food security to impartial bodies who know what they're talking about.

AquaBounty's product isn't just any old product. Its acceptance is not purely about lining the pockets of its shareholders, but about allowing a significant scientific development in the field of food production.

The product has been through 20 years worth of regulatory hurdles to make it into the food chain and many, many impartial experts have deemed the product to be just as safe and healthy to eat as your average farmed salmon.

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Are we assuming "Joe Bloggs" knows better? Because, while he probably thinks he does, he really, really doesn’t.

Consumers who care about where their food comes from generally rely on their chosen retailer to take decisions for them, so maybe that is where the decision-making buck on GM should stop for now.

That may sound a little duplicitous, but a label to me implies there is some decision to be made by the consumer, and I don't always think it is a decision the consumer needs or wants to make. A product's defining features include such criteria as whether it is farmed or wild, whether its has been flown half way round the world to reach its market, it’s nutritional make-up and social and environmental impact.

But whether a product was genetically modified 10 generations ago has been deemed to make no material difference to either its make-up or its social impact, except in an entirely positive way: AquaBounty's closed containment farming has far more limited environmental impact than its traditionally farmed counterparts.

Unfortunately, until GM becomes a positive marketing message, any AquaBounty product labeled as such will rot on the shelves on which it is set, and the very concept of GM protein and all its potential positive impacts will be sent back to the drawing board.

Do we really want our future survival to be reliant on being able to market it convincingly enough to a consumer base looking for the slightest reason not to pick up a seafood product in the first place?

It is possible I am scarred by recent political public decision making, the outcome of which has definitely shifted me away from idealism and towards a more pragmatic outlook, but I feel very strongly right now that some decisions around important issues should not always be left to the public.

There are many, many caveats in that statement, but in general I think it is important for us to realize that democracy in a complex modern society is flawed, and for us to rely on it as a black-and-white solution to our future food security is naïve and dangerous.

Comments? Contact

Twitter: @rachelintrafish

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