You sit back in your cinema seat and grab your popcorn.
The lights go down and the show begins. A giant wooden door appears on the screen and slowly creaks open to reveal a figure of horror — the scaly, wide-eyed face of a salmon.
Alaskans scream in terror.
We take pride in our fish and their value to a healthy seafood industry, but Thursday’s FDA approval of a genetically engineered salmon threatens that pride.
The AquaBounty AquAdvantage salmon — patented and trademarked — is an Atlantic salmon that incorporates a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout that keeps the gene producing growth hormones constantly instead of seasonally. As a result, the fish grows to market size in half the time of a wild fish.
The engineered fish are scheduled to be produced in Panama, from eggs raised in Canada.
The problem for Alaskans is that there may be no way for consumers to distinguish between wild salmon on store shelves and this engineered cousin. The federal government does not require the labeling of engineered food, and in fact the U.S. House has passed a bill that prohibits states from mandating such labeling. (The bill faces tougher opposition in the Senate).
Without proper labeling, the market for wild Alaska salmon is in real trouble.
A 2013 New York Times poll found three-quarters of Americans said they would not eat modified fish, and 93 percent said all food containing modified ingredients should be labeled.
It’s important to note that these concerns, while widespread, are groundless. Engineered plants have been widely used for decades, and you probably have engineered food in your pantry or fridge right now.
Groundless fear is still fear, however, and unless we ensure that consumers are informed, they will avoid what they fear.
People avoiding engineered salmon will avoid all salmon, including that caught in Alaska, unless they can clearly differentiate. Even then, it will be a tall order for marketers, including the Alaska Salmon Marketing Institute, to spread word of the difference.
Engineered salmon aren’t likely to land on store shelves soon — the Center for Food Safety and other organizations have promised a lawsuit — and so we hope Congress will have time to act and pass a firm labeling law before the first engineered scale touches water.
Without that kind of law, the horror won’t be on the screen. It’ll be in the empty harbors of Alaska’s seafood ports.