Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All Food is GM

Katherine Mangu-Ward has an excellent article over at Reason magazine on the introduction of fast growing salmon or Frankenfish as they are known by hippie alarmists. These salmon have been modified to mature faster. However, instead of this having been done by farmers over hundreds or thousands of years, it was done by scientists in a few short years. Farmers and scientists both genetically modify food, of course, but when scientists do it it is somehow inherently evil.

I'm not a huge fan of stuff like GM maize. First of all, I'm not a fan of grains in general, and secondly, I'm wary of the additional pesticide. There are plenty of nuances, since the added pesticide seems a lot safer than what the corn would have been sprayed with otherwise. Also, I'm not well-conversed with the facts because I can't be bothered researching something that I try not to eat anyway.

What I don't have a problem with is the idea of manipulating DNA, or that it should only be done in a 'natural' way through selective breeding.

an example of healthy and natural genetic manipulation

Salmon 2.0 are simply designed to mature faster. Belgian Blue cattle are selected to be massively muscled. In the wild, these strains would quickly be weeded out because they are less efficient than their slimmer or slower-growing competitors. In the case of the Belgian Blue, the gene for myostatin, a muscle inhibitor, is messed up from a 'natural' mutation. In the case of growth-enhanced salmon, a gene string was transferred (transgene) from another fish. Why is one case evil and the other hunky-dory?

A big objection is that these modified salmon will escape and breed with wild salmon and screw up the species forever. I wonder why the same objections aren't made for dogs, cats, pigs, cows, and all the plant cultivars like grapes, wheat, etc? Is anyone worried that Cabernet Sauvignon grapes will suddenly escape and take over the countryside? Oh the tragedy! Or that Belgian Blues will breed with water buffaloes creating an African supercow that will take over the world and make us all wear bells around our necks? Of course not. A salmon that grows too fast, or a cow that has (literally) a ton of extra muscle it doesn't need would quite quickly be deselected in the wild. You can't screw up these wild species because they are already way better adapted to their environment than their modified cousins, whether modified by breeding or by adding a gene from another animal. These species we've modified over the past millennia (or in the last decade) are all hothouse flowers as far as Nature is concerned.

The real problem with these fast-growing salmon is that they will still be fed the same crap other farmed animals eat, thereby screwing up their n-3/n-6 ratio. Not to mention all the other unhealthy aspects of farmed animals: antibiotics, inadequate exercise, inhumane living conditions, etc.


  1. "Or that Belgian Blues will breed with water buffaloes creating an African supercow that will take over the world and make us all wear bells around our necks?"
    That made me laugh so hard.
    I am so on the fence on this subject, I naturally pop off with the same comment that all of our foods are genetically engineered. But when I sit back and consider it I start wondering about the implications. I agree that natural selection should, at least in the animal kingdom, lead us back to the more primitive. The plant kingdom is more of a concern to me as grains are bread to be so much more disease resistant. Like you I don't care that much about the grain since I don't eat it but much of the family still does.

    I can completely vouch for the return to primitive design at least in dogs. My pup was the wild offspring of a wild dog (unknown generations wild) and she is a classic primitive design. Of course she has decided that civilized life is A-OK but if she sees anything covered in fur or feathers that is smaller than her... it is time to hunt.

  2. I loved your blog for a while esp as we may be share the experience of joining you as ex-pats (in Shanghai) at the end of the year...

    You MUST MUST MUST watch 'Future of Food' as it justifies this post on GM. Instead of wearing 'bells around our necks' imagine NOOSES.

  3. TPSW, yeah these things are always more complicated than people usually want or care to hear about. Irradiation is another one. As someone with a EE degree, I understand the difference between non-ionizing radiation and the stuff that kills, so it seems to be a perfectly viable way to kill bacteria in food, but then I've read some bad stuff about it by reliable (ie non-alarmist) people.

    As for 'primitive', I think the more accurate term is 'optimized' ;)

  4. Dr BG, thanks. I will definitely look for it. I have a copy of 'My Big Fat Diet' around that I plan to watch and review at some point. Just saw that the director was on Livin' La Vida recently. I expect the food experience in Shanghai could be quite interesting.