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| Monday, December 7, 2015

November 19th, the United States Food and Drug Administration made the historic decision to approve America’s first genetically modified animal for sale. The AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies, Inc., contains a gene from the Chinook salmon that codes for a growth hormone and a “promoter” from an ocean pout to activate the gene. The resulting fish grow to market size faster than unmodified varieties, meaning they can be sold to consumers more cheaply. Now that’s a cause I can get behind — better living through chemistry.

Despite the FDA’s approval, many are still wary of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). One common argument is that genetic engineers are “playing God” or otherwise interfering with what is “natural.” These protests tend to increase in volume when the genetic modification involves introducing foreign DNA like that of the Chinook and the pout, as opposed to the selective breeding humans have been doing ever since we invented agriculture.

I wholeheartedly disagree with such concerns. At its heart, genetic engineering simply means creating a synthetic chemical. Sure, the transgenic DNA is millions of atoms in size, but it’s still just a chemical. In that respect, it’s no different than the thousands of pharmaceuticals we’ve designed this century that don’t occur in nature. Even a material as ubiquitous as nylon didn’t exist before 1935. How did the environment respond to this “unnatural” material? Bacteria evolved enzymes to digest it.

Now, it’s true that most introductions of new species — even unmodified ones — into other ecosystems are not benign; look at what a few generations of dogs, pigs and sailors did to the dodo bird. Transgenic animals are particularly susceptible to this because their modifications may make them fitter to survive or more effective at consuming resources than unmodified varieties. The FDA is aware of this and has implemented strict regulations to prevent any escapes. All AquAdvantage salmon must be bred in land-based tanks in Canada or Panama, miles from the nearest ocean. Even if they could escape containment and survive, the salmon are designed to be sterile.

In fact, the AquAdvantage salmon could be a significant benefit to the worldwide Atlantic salmon population. This delicious fish has been on the decline for years due to overharvesting. It’s taken strict regulations to put Atlantic salmon on the rebound. If AquAdvantage becomes cheap enough, it could relieve pressure on wild-caught populations and accelerate the recovery.

If we let history be our guide, genetically modified food has the potential to be one of the greatest boons humanity has ever seen. Consider the 20th century’s advancements in genetically modified food. Through carefully controlled breeding, American biologist Norman Borlaug modified wheat to boost yields and increase its resistance to disease. For his efforts, he won the Nobel Prize; it is conservatively estimated that one billion people are currently alive due to this supposedly “taboo” technology. Imagine how many more will be saved from starvation when we can directly edit the genetic code of whatever organism we choose.

At the turn of the century, Borlaug put the costs and benefits of GMOs in stark terms. He said while rich countries like the United States could afford to pay for organic food, “the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.” For the populations of entire countries every single day, GMO or organic never enters into the equation. Food is food, and we’re going to need a lot of it one way or another.

And that’s why, more than ever, I am excited to see AquAdvantage salmon coming to market. After a generation of genetically modified animals being sold and eaten with no effect other than increased wallet size and diminishing famine worldwide, it will be gratifying to see the world once again pat science on the back for a job well done.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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