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Tamar Haspel Headshot

Go, Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon.

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I trust you've heard about the genetically modified salmon currently making its way upstream through the U.S. regulatory process -- as it has been for 17 years.

First I want to ask you what you think about it.

Then I want to tell you what I did yesterday.

I shoveled oysters. My husband and I have a small oyster farm, and we were freeing our overwintered crop from the densely packed trays that had helped them brave the Barnstable Harbor ice, and transferring them to the sparsely packed trays in which they will grow out this spring. All told, we had to shovel some 1,400 pounds of oysters and muck into 40 boxes of about 35 pounds each, and then carry each box to an empty tray and dump it.

Part of the reason we decided to farm oysters is that, if we're going to do hard physical work, we prefer to do it on a farm than at a gym. We find the work gratifying and constructive, and we hope it's helping us fend off decrepitude. But the labor that keeps us fit also keeps oysters expensive. If farmers can't make a living, farming isn't viable, and food prices have to reflect the time and money we invest in the enterprise.

Now, back to the GM salmon. It's an Atlantic salmon with one gene from a Chinook salmon and another from an ocean pout which, together, ensure that the fish produces growth hormone year-round, rather than only part-time. The AquAdvantage fish reportedly grows more than twice as fast as its unmodified brethren.

That translates to less feed, less labor, fewer resources and less waste. Which means the farmer can bring the fish to market with a lower price tag. Since fish is one of the most healthful foods in our diet, and there isn't enough of the wild kind to go around, this could be excellent news.

The only snag? Its GM-ness. Which raises two questions, the first of which is whether it's safe to eat. According to the FDA, it is; on page 107 of their assessment, they say unequivocally, "We looked for direct food consumption hazards. None were found." The second question is whether the fish would be a threat to wild populations if it were to escape. Because the fish are raised in land-based pens, that question applies to a catastrophic failure of the holding facilities (which certainly could happen). Again, the FDA says the fish is safe.

Lots of people take issue with these assessments, and I'm not going to try and hash through them here. Instead, I'm going to ask you one question: When you see a headline along the lines of, "New Study Released on Safety of GM Fish," what do you hope for as you read the article?

Do you hope it's the smoking gun, the last nail in the coffin of Frankenfish? Or do you hope, hope against hope, that we find out the fish is safe? Safe, so we can raise salmon with a fraction of the resources. Safe, so we can ease the pressure on our wild stocks. Safe, so families with tight food budgets can have salmon for supper.

Genetic modification raises hard questions that need thorough answers. But, given finite resources to feed a growing population, wouldn't it be great if science could help us grow more nutritious foods with less time, effort, land, and money? I'm a farmer, and I say yes.

I'm rooting for the fish.