AD Main Menu

Despite Murkowski protests, genetic modification of food is old hat

Craig Medred
Kirsten Dixon photo

Somebody please get Sen. Lisa Luddite Murkowski, R-Alaska, down off her high-flying Frankenfish. Enough with the pandering to Alaska commercial fishing interests.

Genetic manipulation of food is what humans do. We were doing it indiscriminately and accidentally for thousands of years. Then Gregor Mendel came along in the 1800s to figure out the basic principle of genetics, and we started playing with genes in a much more scientific way.

Now Mendel's successors are playing in ways he never imagined. They're going straight to the genetic code to manipulate plants and animals instead of trying to do so through the processes of grafting or reproduction, i.e. cross-breeding. It's pretty easy to get freaked out about this. God only knows what those mad scientists might create.

What happens in their laboratories has been one of our great fears of humankind since science was "invented,'' for lack of a better word. Scientists are responsible for an endless list of dangerous stuff: dynamite; the automobile, which is today one of this country's biggest killers; the Cheetos and Twinkies fueling an obesity epidemic; the nuclear bomb; the computer, which can expose your children and maybe even you to untold dangers.

Technology marches forward

Nobody really knows for certain what those gamma rays coming from your computer at this moment could be doing to you. Are you reading this on a laptop? Do you have the laptop in your lap? Be aware, some scientists have warned this could make you sterile if you are a young man.

Such are the dangers of the world in which we live. And yet, as has many times been said, "you can't stop progress.'' Why not? Because on balance progress, especially technological progress, makes our lives better. Humans today live more comfortable and generally longer lives than at any time in human history, unless of course you are one of those people with a literal belief in the Bible:

"Adam lived 930 years and died.'' "Seth lived 912 years and died." "Enosh lived 905 years and died.'' Etc, etc. Genesis 5:5-11. 

Most rational humans, of course, accept that the authors of the Bible were either fudging things a bit or didn't count years the same way we do now. The reality is that the human lifespan on this planet hasn't been all that long in the thousands of years since we crawled out of the ooze. Less than 200 years ago, in fact, the average lifespan for a man born in this country was 38.3 years. It is now hovering around 75.

A big chunk of the improvement in lifespan is due to a huge drop in infant and childhood mortality, but despite our bad diets, despite our fattening leisure lifestyles, despite a lot of the other unhealthy aspects of modern life, we all do better now than we did then. In 1850, a man who made it to age 30 could count on another 34 years on average. These days, a man who makes it to 30 can count on about 47 more years. That's about a 40 percent improvement in lifespan despite an agricultural revolution fueled in part by chemicals that can be bad for us, and a whole lot of genetic manipulation.

Without those things we might be in a lot of hurt, too. The so-called "Green Revolution'' is credited with saving mankind from the "population bomb,'' which was supposed to have spread famine worldwide by now. When Norman Borlaug died in 2009, the Wall Street Journal headlined his obituary this way: "The Man Who Defused the 'Population Bomb.'"

Who was Borlaug? A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the anti-Murkowski. The Journal described him this way:

"The very personification of human goodness, Borlaug saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived. He was America's Albert Schweitzer: a brilliant man who forsook privilege and riches in order to help the dispossessed of distant lands....As a young agronomist, Borlaug helped develop some of the principles of Green Revolution agriculture on which the world now relies, including hybrid crops selectively bred for vigor, and "shuttle breeding," a technique for accelerating the movement of disease immunity between strains of crops. He also helped develop cereals that were insensitive to the number of hours of light in a day, and could therefore be grown in many climates.

"In 1950, as Borlaug began his work in earnest, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, with Borlaug's concepts common, production was 1.9 billion tons of grain for 5.6 billion men and women: 2.8 times the food for 2.2 times the people."

How did this happen? Genetic tampering. "The spectacular increases in wheat and rice yields during the 'Green Revolution' were enabled by the introduction of dwarfing traits into the plants,'' according to English scientists.

Freaks usually don't survive

Gene tampering has continued ever since. It's sort of our nature. How do you think we came to have dogs?

There have always been dangers in genetic manipulation. Scientists have bred freaks. Usually they don't survive. But something bad could happen. There are reasons Frankenstein -- first a novel by Mary Shelley, then a play and movie  -- became hugely popular. It struck close to our fears of what science could do.

Murkowski tries to play on the fears with her rantings about a "Frankenfish.'' And what exactly is this "Frankenfish?'' It's a variation on that genetically modified wheat and rice with fins and scales. A company called AquaBounty wants to take genes from the ocean pout, an eel-like creature, and from Chinook salmon to create an Atlantic salmon that will eat all the time and grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of 30. The fear expressed by opponents is that these genetically modified fish might get loose in the wild and take over, in the process decimating wild salmon.

You know, kind of like what happened to the poor whitetail deer in America after the cow -- a creature humans created through genetic manipulation -- hit this continent's shores. Oh, the poor extinct deer.  OK, that might be making just a little too light of the situation. There is in piscean research, as in all research, some risk, and the government is right to keep an eye on this research as it is now doing.

But the issue here really isn't about Frankenfish getting loose in the wild. It's about Frankenfish competing with Alaska-caught wild salmon in the market. Murkowski doesn't like that because a whole lot of people who contribute to her political coffers don't like that, and so she's come up with this catchy and horribly misguided Frankenfish rant.

Let us, just for the sake of argument, assume she is right about the Frankenfish being a potential danger to the environment. If that is the case, would you rather have scientists here or in China, or some third-world country, leading the push to develop this fish. We in America, believe it or not, have pretty good government oversight of scientific experimentation. That is not the case elsewhere. A lot of the world has become even more capitalistic than America. A lot of the world now practices what China calls government capitalism, i.e. the government is heavily into supporting anything it believes can make money in what is now a highly competitive global market place.

Alaska's Luddite? 

This attitude does not make for good government oversight of science. If Murkowski manages to stop the experimentation with her so-called Frankenfish here, she'll just push the research elsewhere. The country has been down this road before. It seriously restricted reproductive science in the 1960s and '70s. As a result, the Brits took over the leadership of research in that field. Louise Joy Brown, the world's first "test-tube baby," was born in England in 1978 in part because of American fears the mad scientists in this country might create a Frankenbaby.

Maybe Alaska's Luddite senator can keep pushing this Frankenfish theme until she manages to send work on genetically manipulated fish elsewhere. She's promised to keep up her battle. She might succeed. More than half of Americans already believe genetically modified food unsafe to eat, according to some polls, though there is hardly anything you buy in the grocery today that wasn't genetically modified in some way at some point in time.

Of course, in Alaska, someone could be living on a diet of salmon and caribou alone. This was once a norm. But how many people live that way anymore? Even in the most remote corners of rural Alaska, there seems to be plenty of products with wheat and rice that come from the genetic tampering of the Green Revolution. Genetic modification was good then, but it is bad now.

Time to get the mob ready, light some torches and go cook ourselves a Frankenfish!

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com