We had a good summer of fishing for salmon at the Rainbow King Lodge in Southwest Alaska. Our guests enjoyed the natural beauty of Lake Iliamna and its environs, where the rivers and streams offer some of the best fishing spots in the world.
Now some politicians in Washington think they have identified a threat to the pristine Alaska wilderness. These members of Congress are trying to force the federal government to slow down or stop a technology company that has figured out a way to make salmon less expensive for ordinary consumers.
If they succeed, they'll destroy jobs, raise prices and place new pressures on wild fish populations.
The controversy surrounds a company called AquaBounty, which has used biotechnology to develop a gene- enhanced Atlantic salmon that grows twice as fast as regular salmon. Scientists at the Food & Drug Administration have studied biotech salmon for 15 years and have determined that the fish (in their words) are "as safe to eat as food from other Atlantic salmon."
That's a compelling endorsement from scientists who have devoted their lives to investigation of food safety.
Here's a competing analysis from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who wants to overrule the scientists: "It kind of gives me the heebie jeebies."
You know what gives me the heebie jeebies? Members of Congress who exploit their political power to trample a science-based regulatory process.
Yet this is exactly what's happening. This summer, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would ban the FDA from approving the biotech salmon. Now Murkowski is trying to get the Senate to join this know-nothing cause.
The enemies of biotechnology have proven that they'll say anything to advance their agenda, even adopting the fear-mongering language of Greenpeace activists in Europe. When these radicals campaign against the types of agricultural biotechnology that American farmers use every day, they condemn it as "frankenfood." Taking their cue from the extremists, Murkowski and her cronies speak of "frankenfish."
Despite their rhetoric, they're really just engaged in a bit of old-fashioned special-interest politics. Murkowski thinks biotech salmon will hurt Alaska's salmon industry. She has every right to defend what she regards as her state's parochial interests, but the rest of us shouldn't let her smother a new technology that will help consumers and protect the environment.
One of Murkowski's favorite arguments is that biotech fish will pollute the gene pool of fish in the wild. Nonsense. As the owner of a fishing lodge in Alaska, I have strong incentive to keep Alaska's fish population healthy for catching and eating. And like the FDA scientists, I have no worries about the safety of genetically modified salmon.
They're grown inland, far from traditional breeding grounds. What's more, they're raised to be female and sterile, so even in the highly unlikely event that one escapes -- perhaps by growing lungs and feet and jogging to the ocean -- it won't be able to mix with conventional populations.
Environmentalists ought to love this biotech innovation because it promises to relieve pressure on fishing stocks. Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead are already listed as endangered and many other varieties of fish are threatened. If biotechnology can help producers satisfy consumer demand -- not just for salmon but for other fish -- it may offer a tool for effective fish conservation.
Jobs are at stake as well. If the anti-biotech crowd gets its way, our government will set the troubling precedent that the FDA's scientific reviews are vulnerable to political interference -- and technology companies will hesitate to invest in the U.S.
"We are an American company," says the CEO of AquaBounty. "We wanted to start in America." But if politics trumps science, he may take his business elsewhere, thanks to the likes of Murkowski.
In the worst economic times of our lives, with an unemployment rate that hovers above 9 percent, a bunch of politicians want to force a technology company to leave the country and create jobs elsewhere.
Now that's a thought that should give us all the heebie jeebies.
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in California's San Joaquin Valley. He and his sons own Rainbow King Lodge on Lake Iliamna. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org
By TED SHEELY