Frankenfish Fatuity

Frankenfish Fatuity

March 23, 2011
Originally published in Forbes Blog

I’ll say one thing for the most recent New York Times‘ rant about genetically engineered food: They got the headline — “Frankenfish Phobia” — right.   Phobia is, after all, “a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.” Irrational being the operative word.  Columnist Timothy Egan is certainly irrational about a fast-growing genetically engineered salmon, which will likely be approved for marketing later this year.

Egan condemned what he considers a hubristic attempt to “trick nature, or do it one better” by crafting a North Atlantic salmon that grows faster than its wild cohorts.  If there’s any hubris here, it’s a columnist for a major newspaper writing about something he misapprehends so completely.  Like many of his Times colleagues, Egan knows everything — except what he’s writing about.

Tricking nature?  More like complementing nature — something we’ve been doing successfully for millennia.

Except for wild game, wild mushrooms, wild berries and fish and shellfish, virtually all the food in European and American diets has long been derived from genetically modified organisms — yes, even the organic stuff at Whole Foods and the local farmers market.  Tangelos resulted from a genetic cross between tangerines and grapefruit, for example. From a primitive plant called brassica, laborious trial-and-error genetic modification over centuries created canola, cabbage, bok choi, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, rutabaga, mustard and turnip, among others. Yogurt, beer, tofu and bread are made with microorganisms that have been painstakingly modified and optimized over centuries.  Grains in particular have been intensively engineered over millennia for higher yields, pest- and disease-resistance and various desirable characteristics. For example, although wheat varieties grown now vary widely in their traits and genetics, all are derived from a common precursor first domesticated in Turkey around 9000 B.C. and subsequently genetically improved by farmers, plant breeders and biologists.  Current varieties include durum wheat for pasta and so-called common wheat for bread.

Animals, too, have been genetically engineered, mostly by laborious and imprecise trial-and-error breeding techniques.  Most dog breeds barely resemble the wolves from which they’re descended; does that make Cracker, my Bedlington Terrier, a FrankenFido?  The dozens of varieties of cattle raised today are all derived from the now-extinct auroch, which was used both for food and as a beast of burden from ancient times until the 17th century.  A relatively recent new food animal, the “beefalo,” a cow-bison (buffalo) hybrid, combines the superior hardiness, foraging ability, ease of calving and low-fat meat of the bison with the fertility, milking ability and docility of the cow.

Thus, genetic engineering is not new, but the techniques for accomplishing it have evolved. The newest molecular techniques — recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing — are far more precise and predictable than their predecessors.   Food made with these techniques dominate our diets: Most of the corn, soy and canola grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered with molecular techniques, and more than 80% of the processed food in our supermarkets contain ingredients from genetically engineered crops.  In North America alone, consumers have eaten more than 3 trillion servings of food that contains ingredients from genetically engineered plants without a single documented adverse reaction.

So what’s special about this new salmon, which has been treading water in regulatory limbo for 10 years while the FDA dithered over a regulatory policy?  It is a fast-growing North Atlantic salmon that contains a new Chinook salmon growth hormone gene and a DNA regulatory sequence that keeps the gene turned on all year instead of only during the warmer months, as in nature.  This roughly halves the salmon’s time to reach a marketable adult weight.

The genetic change adds no other new substances to the salmon and confers no detectable difference in its appearance, taste or nutritional value; it just grows faster, a tremendous economic advantage to those farming the fish.  Once on the market, it will increase the supply and lower the price of this nutritious source of protein.

Among the other applications of the same genetic technology, one has been on the market for several years: a beautiful ornamental aquarium fish called the Glofish, a zebra fish genetically altered to make it fluorescent.  Other animals in the pipeline include livestock with leaner muscle mass and improved use of dietary phosphorous to lessen the environmental effects of manure.

Egan ventures into especially deep water trying to rationalize his mistrust of the new salmon.  Despite that all the engineered salmon will be sterile females and that they will be farmed only far inland, he remains skeptical of assurances that there is virtually no possibility of escape and interaction with the wild population.  (Not that it would make any difference if that did occur.)  Why?  ”We were in Italy, my wife pregnant with our first child, when the Chernobyl nuclear plant blew. The Soviets lied, and covered up the accident.”  Therefore, according to Egan, assurances about the safety of the genetically engineered salmon are likewise misguided.

His explanation is a perfect example of a formal fallacy, a pattern of reasoning that is illogical and wrong, called “asserting the consequent.”  It takes the form of: “If A, then B.  B therefore, A.”  An example would be: “If Warren Buffett owned the British Crown Jewels, he would be rich.  Buffett is rich; therefore, he owns the Crown Jewels.”

This sort of nonsense makes one wonder whether there is any adult supervision at the Times.  It is one thing to encourage a broad spectrum of viewpoints; it’s quite another to publish incoherent fatuity.