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Genetically Modified Salmon: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

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On Friday, my husband and I cooked wild salmon over a wood fire. We enjoyed it with garden vegetables and maybe a little too much wine. When the subject of genetically-modified salmon came up, I was surprised to find that we disagreed -- vehemently on my part.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently holding meetings -- for only two days? -- on whether or not to approve the marketing of a genetically-modified salmon species that produces growth hormones all year, instead of seasonally. Proponents argue that this fast-growing salmon would be a significant new food source whose consumption would also spare wild salmon populations. Critics are concerned about allergens in this untested food and the possibilities of genetically-modified salmon escaping into the wild. Would their rapid growth mean that they would consume more food to the detriment of existing wild species?

My husband argued that genetic modification is nothing new. In essence that's what agriculture and animal husbandry are -- plants and animals that were modified through selective breeding by humans who wanted to have more control over their food sources. Corn and cows, as we know them, do not exist in the wild and could not survive there. Fish are already being farmed; genetic modification is just one more step. And, as my husband pointed out, we have a huge and growing population to feed. If I don't like the corporate model of food production, what do I propose as an alternative? Relying on the regional, organic food model alone could mean the return of famines that have only been eradicated in the last century by mass food production.

That is where I got stuck. I could only say, I don't know. I just know that the corporate model has had a questionable effect not only on food production but also on health care, publishing, and just about any other area of human enterprise. (Then we began to argue about the profit motive; I won't go into that here.) Since that evening, I have been reflecting on what troubles me about genetic modification, in addition to questions of safety.

It troubles me that no one is considering the spirit of the salmon, a fish revered by Celts and many Native American peoples, especially in the Northwest. The legendary Irish hero Finn Macumhail burned his finger when cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for his teacher. When he put his finger in his mouth, the salmon's wisdom became his. The Haida people tell a story of a boy who lacked respect for the salmon and was swept away by the river. The Salmon People rescue him, taught him the error of his ways and return him to his people as a healer and a shaman.

I do not want to see anyone starve, and surely the peoples of the Northwest have long revered the salmon as a source of food. I know that with our necessity and production, a return to hunting and gathering is impossible, though I am more hopeful than my husband about bio-regional food production. (Urban farming is a particularly exciting movement.)

What troubles me about genetic engineering is that we are considering only our own short-term interests. I would like to see FDA and other authorities routinely consult shamans as well as scientists. We need to consider what the Salmon People want, what life itself wants, what the seventh generation of all species wants.

My husband and I continue to debate. I close with this email just in from him. "It does seem like the FDA isn't looking very hard. I'm still not against the idea of GE in principle, but I do think we have to be extremely careful, and our regulators appear to be bought by the industry."

Looks like the marriage will survive. I hope the wild salmon will, too.

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