Can frankensalmon triumph over uninformed ad-hoc opinions?

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

tumblr_lys10lmgnS1qdm7sdo1_500Consumers have a history of caution in adopting technological innovations in food. Pasteurised milk took years to gain acceptance, and words like “Frankenfood” are used to describe food that is produced in a lab. But what starts out frightening can rapidly become commonplace. Nearly two decades ago, genetically modified soy beans were Frankenfood, and today they account for 85% of soy bean production in the US.

Labels like “Frankenfood” are emotive, and imply that a wrong has been committed. Unfortunately, the debate often ends here, as moral claims – no matter how un-articulated – are frequently treated as privileged or even as trump-cards, in that if you find something morally objectionable, your objection is typically afforded respect regardless of its merit.

So it is with Frankensalmon, or to give this delectable fish its proper name, AquAdvantage salmon, fresh from the labs of AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. A combination of Atlantic Salmon, Chinook, and Ocean Eel Pout. The Chinook salmon provides a growth hormone gene, while the Ocean Eel Pout contributes an antifreeze protein gene. What we end up with is a salmon that reaches market age twice as fast as the one you’d normally find on your plate.

What we also end up with, at least according to some commenters on the FDA’s website, is either something that will make you fat directly (“Pls don’t allow ge salmon. Please. Usa is obese enough”, says Vera) or play a part in destroying regular salmon, a food which apparently keeps you thin. According to Sandra, that is, who says “I am finally finding out why i have had a problem with my weight and health for the last few decades. Now you are prepared to take one of the healthiest foods away”.

Comments also include the predictable lamentations regarding Monsanto (who have nothing to do with AquAdvantage), big pharma, government and assorted other (also big, I imagine) villains. Mostly, though, it’s sheer hysteria and the occasional attempt at something that looks like a threat (“my family will never buy this!”) – albeit not a threat you’d imagine at all efficacious.

“It’s not nice to fool mother nature”, and “we need to stick with the basics and consume food in the form in which it has been consumed by human beings for millions of years” is the common sentiment, repeated over 24 pages with various degrees of anger. But as I noted in a previous column on doping in sport, the appeal to nature is often nothing but simple prejudice dressed up as argument.

There are arguments that could be had here, and evidence that would be relevant to whether this GM salmon should be approved or not. One concern would be whether these fish would be reproductively superior to traditional salmon, threatening their existence in the long run.

Even though AquaBounty claim that they are bred to be sterile, a petition reports that 5% of them are in fact fertile. Other issues are raised in the petition, such as the fish causing increased allergic reactions, and apparently also (at one production site) having been “infected with a new strain of infectious Salmon Anaemia, a deadly fish flu which has been devastating fish stocks around the world”.

It’s that sort of language – on the petition and on the FDA site – that should give cause for decreased concern, rather than the escalated hysteria that hysteria tends to breed. Salmon anaemia has been observed since 1984 – before this fish existed – and also seems to be something that salmon are prone to, whether or not they are GM. And seeing as viruses mutate, speaking of salmon being “infected with a new strain” can only result in readers imagining Dr. Strangelove cackling as he plots to hand Karl Rove the keys to the world.

It’s difficult to find examples of scientists, rather than frightened laypeople or environmental activists, urging caution about this fish. It might certainly be unsafe, but if it’s evidence and argument that should inform choices like these, we’ve got very little, if any, reason to be concerned.

What I’m more concerned about is the increasing trend of mistaking the popular voice for an opinion worth taking seriously. Christopher Hitchens coined a wonderful phrase in referring to conspiracy theories, dubbing them “exhaust fumes of democracy”, and one could say something similar about calls for public participation, like this one from the FDA (closing on February 25, if you want to get a rant in).

A checkbox which asks something like “is there any particular reason to take your viewpoint seriously” should perhaps be added to any such website, poll or evaluation, with an upload facility for your credentials. As Mitchell and Webb put it, a frequent response to the feedback we get could be something like “thank you for sharing with us the full majesty of your uninformed ad-hoc reckon”.

In summary, the problem seems to be that the democratising of, well, just about everything has resulted in too many of us thinking we have something worthwhile to say on anything, where sometimes, the most valuable contribution we could make might be our silence.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.