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Alan Boraas: Frankenfish are bad news in more ways than one

A biotechnology company called AquaBounty Industries and a principle investor,Intrexon, are poised to become the Monsanto of salmon production. Last April the Food and Drug Administration found "no adverse affect" for human consumption of a salmon AquaBounty created called AquaAdvantage. After public comment it could be on restaurant menus and in supermarkets as early as next year.

AquaBounty modified Atlantic salmon DNA with aking salmon gene to cause it to grow twice as fast and larger than an average Atlantic salmon. The eggs would be sold to fish farmers and reared, as is aquacultural practice, in densely packed pens. The translucent meat would be artificially colored to make it more palatable but will still be jelly-like because the fish get no exercise. The new salmon won't have the same Omega-3 amounts as wild salmon, one of the properties that make wild salmon so nutritious and able to combat diabetes, depression and other diseases.

The mutant salmon won't be labeled so you won't know you are eating genetically modified salmon. It would be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption.

Approval will likely be the beginning of the end of Alaska's wild salmon industry, which will become, at best, a small niche market. The world won't buy wholesome, healthy wild salmon rich in Omega3 when they can get cheap, genetically modified McSalmon burgers.

The escape of transgenic salmon into wild ecosystems is inevitable. It's a problem limited to Alaska because the only appreciable wild salmon ecosystems left are in Alaska, the rest are gone. AquaBounty says it will render the females sterile and its scientistssay the smaller, lethargic transgenic male salmon will be at a breeding disadvantage with the larger, aggressive wild males.

But, according to experiments by Memorial University biologist Darek Moreau, small transgenic males, like other small salmon males, hide in the weeds while the big strong males fight it out to inseminate a female's recently laid eggs. The transgenic mutants can dart out and fertilize eggs while males are engaged in breeding battles. It's only a matter of time before genetically modified fish turn up in Alaskan nets. Moreover, AquaBounty or their licensees will own those fish.

But salmon gene replacement would be just the beginning. Forty-eight percent of AquaBounty is owned by Intrexon, one of the giants in the burgeoning field of artificial bioengineering. Intrexon is a private company controlled by billionaire biotech investor Randal J. Kirk. Bioengineering is not simply gene splicing. Intrexon owns several processes like their Ultravector technology that results in the "adjustable control of gene expression." The details are proprietary but the claim is they can alter the biochemical processes operating between formation of messenger RNA and the final cell protein making a new biological characteristic.

This technology can be used for the greater good such as turning off the growth of cancer cells or reversing diabetes. But by buying into AquaBounty, Intrexon has entered the realm of bioengineered food; specifically salmon they own modified with processes they own. If transgenic fish are approved there is nothing to stop biotechnology from being used to further modify salmon into something bigger, fatter and cheaper to raise. Transgenic technology will further distance salmon from something wild, healthy, natural, sustainable and owned by the commons to something domesticated, less healthy, unnatural, unsustainable, and owned by a private company.

Its win-win for bioengineering corporations. First, bioengineer foods that humans have evolved to eat for thousands of years contributing to a substandard diet enhancing the possibility of disease like diabetes, depression, or possibly cancer. Then bioengineer the transgenic medical treatment to cure the disease and laugh all the way to the bank.

There is a related issue. There is increasing pressure to not enforce environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act that protect natural environments like wild salmon streams. Compensatory mitigation is a regulatory mechanism to permit a corporation to destroy, say; fish habitat for development purposes and then allow that corporation to mitigate the damage by creating an equal number of fish someplace else. Take out twelve miles of salmon stream, no problem, mitigate it by cheaply produced transgenic farmed salmon.

Like Monsanto that controls most of the corn and soybean products we eat through their genetically modified brands, we are headed toward companies not owning just the animals but the species of the animals we eat and engineering them to suit market and shareholder objectives. You can voice your opinion to the FDA by April 23.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.



By ALAN BORAAS