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Shannyn Moore: Obama breaks his promise on frankenfish, and Alaskans will pay

  • Author: Shannyn Moore
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 28, 2015

For close to two decades, AquaBounty, a company from Massachusetts, has been genetically modifying salmon. Apparently the whole years in the ocean, swimming back to the home creek, spawning upriver natural progression, is just too much of a pain. It takes too long.

Instead AquaBounty has created a hybrid Atlantic salmon-Chinook salmon with just a sprinkle of a gene from an eel-like ocean pout, which "keeps a vital growth hormone activated rather than shutting it down after a certain point" so the fish grow twice as fast.

Does it have bolts sticking out from behind its gills? It might as well have. Mary Shelley wouldn't eat this thing. This creature would be the first genetically modified animal to hit our supermarket shelves. (Lord only knows what kind of "just add water and get veal" is under development.)

The Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing this "salmon" for some time. In April 2012, it wrote a report on the product's safety. What would it say? How could something genetically modified to grow faster affect people who ate it? Inquiring minds would have to wait.

The White House decided to keep that report under wraps until after the election. Well, it's out now and the FDA has not only approved this fish monster, it has, in its infinite wisdom, decided it needn't be labeled as genetically modified.

Make no mistake. I'm furious with the Obama administration.

When Barack Obama was campaigning in 2007, he said something that I'd been yearning to hear. He vowed, as president, he would strive to "let folks know when their food is genetically modified because Americans have a right to know what they're buying."

I realize the difference between campaigning and being president is much like the difference between dating and being married, but I was counting on him to keep his vows.

Europe has required all foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled accordingly since 1997. Fifty countries, including China and Russia, require food manufacturers to label GMOs. Forty percent of the world's population can find out if it is feeding its families altered foods.

In 2012, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act was on the ballot. It was simple: "The initiative would simply require food sold in retail outlets to be labeled if it contains genetically engineered ingredients." It seemed like a no brainer because food labels already have to include calories, sugar, fats, sodium and more.

Why am I telling you? You read labels every time you go to the grocery store.

Monsanto ("the devil") and agriculture corporations spent $45 million to defeat the California initiative. Why? Because it apparently can't compete in a "free market" with fully informed consumers. Shoppers prefer food that comes from fields rather than laboratories, at least genetically speaking. Most Americans don't realize more than 60 percent of what is already on store shelves has been altered.

Shut up! No way! One of President Obama's first memoranda claimed scientific integrity for his administration. "Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions," an official memo stated. "If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the federal government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public."

That certainly didn't happen in a timely way in this case, and might not have happened at all if not for food activists. The FDA's frankenfish findings were politically suppressed to "not upset the base."

On Dec. 21, 2012, Slate online magazine and the Genetic Literacy Project published investigations into whether the White House was interfering in the scientific review process within the FDA. Within hours the FDA released the study.

I believed Obama was committed to ensuring that American consumers can know where their food comes from because that's what he said.

There's no way on God's green earth that the market for wild Alaska salmon won't be affected by these decisions. AquaBounty's whole point is to undercut fishermen and processors. It costs more to run a boat, brave the seas and harvest natural fish runs than to set up swimming pools in a field, throw in some feed and watch the sea monkeys grow.

To add insult to injury, we can't label Bristol Bay sockeye or Copper River kings as "organic." Federal agriculture standards won't permit it because we can't prove that everything our fish eat in the rivers and ocean is organic. But a fish farm that feeds "organic pellets" to its pet salmon can use that label. As a result, our truly organic wild salmon will have to compete with the organic semi-salmon, and it's only the genetically modified fish that can sport a label suggesting they lived the way nature intended.

This issue should have never been a political one. Protecting our salmon is not a partisan issue for most Alaskans. Most of us don't buy the mining companies' "sustainable development" argument for dropping open pit mines on the headwaters of prolific salmon rivers. Why? Because we're not stupid. We've seen the Mount Polly mine disaster in Canada. And if you aren't following the Brazilian tailings dam collapse that right this minute is pouring a gigantic river of poison through communities and into the Atlantic, you should.

Next year's Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast calls for more than 50 million fish to return, with 30 million of them expected to reach the plates of people all over the world. On the long list of environmental issues to consider, we now have to contend with the FDA's bad policymaking.

Friends don't let friends eat farmed or frankenfish.

Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com

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