Opinion

A guy walks into a bar with a salmon . . .

Photo of Henry Miller
Henry Miller
Fellow, Hoover Institution
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      Henry Miller

      Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was an official at the NIH and FDA from 1977 to 1994. His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”

According to the latest Gallup 2010 Confidence in Institutions poll, the U.S. Congress ranks dead last out of the 16 institutions rated. Only 11% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in those who populate the institution, down from 17% in 2009 and a percentage point lower than the previous low (2008).

By proposing legislation that would require labels on genetically engineered fish, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) illustrates perfectly why members of Congress deserve opprobrium, derision . . . and defeat. Her gratuitous bill not only illustrates ignorance of the context of genetically engineered foods in our diets and how the FDA regulates food but also raises constitutional issues.

Except for wild game, wild mushrooms, wild berries and fish and shellfish, virtually all the food in European and American diets is already derived from genetically modified organisms. Yes, virtually all of it, even the stuff at Whole Foods and the local farmers market. Pluots resulted from a man-made cross between plums and apricots. Yogurt, beer, tofu and bread are made with microorganisms that have been painstakingly modified and optimized over many years or, sometimes, centuries. Even today’s “heirloom” tomatoes that predate the pest- and disease-resistant hybrids most often grown commercially have been engineered to be a far cry from their South American forbears — small, hard, toxic fruit closer in appearance to a golf ball than a food. Grains in particular have been intensively engineered over millennia for higher yields, pest- and disease-resistance and various desirable characteristics — yielding durum wheat for pasta, for example, and so-called common wheat for bread. Although wheat varieties cultivated now vary widely in their traits and genetics, all are derived from a common precursor first domesticated in Turkey around 9000 B.C. and subsequently genetically improved by farmers, plant breeders and biologists.

Animals, too, have been genetically engineered, mostly by laborious and imprecise trial-and-error breeding techniques. The dozens of varieties of cattle raised today are all derived from the now-extinct auroch, which was used both for food and as a beast of burden from ancient times until the 17th century. A relatively recent new food animal, the “beefalo,” a cow-bison (buffalo) hybrid, combines the superior hardiness, foraging ability, ease of calving and low-fat meat of the Bison with the fertility, milking ability, and docility of the cow.

Thus, it is not the genetic engineering of food that is new, but only the techniques for accomplishing it that are. And the newest techniques — recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing — are far more precise and predictable than their predecessors.

So along comes this North Atlantic salmon which has been engineered to reach maturity in half the time of its cohorts, by means of the introduction of a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon that is turned on all year instead of only part-time as in nature.

This poor salmon has been floundering in regulatory limbo for ten years while the FDA dithered over a regulatory policy. Now that it appears that approval for sale and consumption is imminent, anti-biotechnology activists have slithered out from under rocks to oppose it. One of them is Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who heads the subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee that appropriates funds for the FDA. On September 29th, she introduced a bill that would mandate labeling of genetically modified fish.