The State of the Union, or in Twitter-speak, #SOTU, is one duty that that the President of the USA must undertake annually. Actually, according to Article 3 of the Constitution, it does not have to be a speech, but since Woodrow Wilson the President has made it an event on Capitol Hill. Many of us probably wish the President would instead just send Congress an email and then “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” If you decided to work out or caught up on the DVR, you missed a light moment when President Obama dished out a joke about the various agencies that oversee salmon: one department has jurisdiction when it is in fresh water, another when it is in saltwater, and “it gets even more complicated when it’s smoked.”
Chuckles aside, the truth is that when it comes to genetically modified salmon (or GE salmon), things do get complicated, and no, we are not smoking.
One biotech company, AquaBounty, hopes to become part of the “blue revolution,” and bring together aquaculture and science to create scalable production of seafood. The Massachusetts-based company promotes several benefits if its salmon, tilapia, and trout get to market: they grow twice the size as “traditional” fish, can be grown inland without ocean pens, cannot reproduce (but what about that fish bait sushi?), and are “indistinguishable” from other fish.
For now, the fish is undergoing the approval process, which for now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees. The word out on the street (or ocean pen) is that this GE salmon could be approved for human consumption any day now. Other agencies have not been pleased: the Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service has expressed the impact this GE fish could have if it ever escapes into the wild, even if the AquaBounty’s fish is nonproductively sterile. The FDA is also required to file an environmental impact statement on the effects of these fish, which apparently has not been completed (so would that be the EPA?).
But what has raised the hackles of many who are concerned about “FrankenFish” is that the FDA has no current method for evaluating a product like that of AquaBounty’s. According to the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, FDA employees have evaluated the fish as a “veterinary drug,” not a food product. Three of the four studies on which the agency based its review were non-peer-reviewed and conducted by AquaBounty, the very company that would benefit from producing the fish. The FDA could also put the fish on the market without any labeling requirements.
In many ways, our food choices have never been better. Anyone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s can recall with a laugh of what ended on the dinner table, or more likely, the TV tray. New technology like the Internet and old methods like farming without chemicals allow us to choose carefully what goes from market to our kitchens. The flip side, of course, is that biotechnology was a word in few people’s vocabularies a couple generations ago. Obama’s joke brought us a brief moment of levity, but the risk that GE salmon may end up in markets, bought by consumers who should know what they are eating, is not very funny.