Friday, May 5, 2000 4:00 PM UTC

Stalking the wild Frankensalmon

Foes of genetically altered foods say the Clinton administration's new regulations don't go far enough.

There is no fish more universally revered, especially in cold-water countries that have made its annual upstream struggle the stuff of legend, than the salmon. “A repository of otherworldly wisdom” is how James MacKillop’s Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology describes the fish — wisdom passed on to the humans who eat it.

If biotech firm A/F Protein gets its way, though, soon consumers may ingest something other than mythic wisdom with their sushi and salmon steaks. A/F Protein has managed to jigger the genetics of 15 million salmon eggs on a fish farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada, to create a new, human-engineered species blandly branded “AquAdvantage,” which grows four to six times faster than the standard Darwinian variety. The Canadian company has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to start marketing its product — one referred to as Frankenfish in some circles — in the U.S. a year from now.

On Wednesday, the Clinton administration issued the first U.S. regulations governing genetically modified food. But the behind-the-scenes story of those fast-growing salmon shows why the new rules are unlikely to quell what has emerged as a major transnational revolt against both genetic engineering and the corporations that have staked major investments in it.

Indeed, the administration’s new rules come just as McDonald’s — the very epitome of a global corporation — announced that because of “consumer reluctance” it would no longer buy genetically modified spud potatoes. Suddenly potatoes and fish are as much at the center of global politics as are the World Bank and the IMF.

A/F Protein may be the first company to bring genetically altered fish to the U.S. market. But it is not the first corporation to experiment with salmon’s growth hormones. In New Zealand in the mid-1990s, NZ King Salmon, the country’s largest salmon producer, began its own genetic-engineering program along much the same lines as that of A/F Protein. But last April, reports surfaced — eventually confirmed by the company — that some fish had been spawned with deformed heads.

The prospect of mutant fish escaping from farms and crossbreeding with wild fish immediately set off alarm bells. The New Zealand government promptly set stringent new restrictions on the research, and the country’s influential Green Party called for an investigation. In early February, NZ Salmon announced it was dropping its research program, killing its Frankenfish and freezing whatever genetically altered sperm remained.

Word of both A/F Protein’s pending FDA application and the New Zealand controversy simultaneously reached Scotland, whose $260 million salmon industry produces 120,000 tons of fish a year. Scottish environmentalists worried about a Purdue University study showing that, if accidentally released into the wild, the larger genetically modified fish attract four times as many mates as wild salmon attract, but produce weaker offspring, thus potentially decimating fish populations in just a few years.

To Scotland, this was no theoretical threat: An estimated 700,000 salmon have escaped from Scottish fish farms in the past three years alone. Two weeks ago, the trade group representing Scotland’s salmon industry voted to reject “any use of transgenic salmon” within the country’s borders.

As the ongoing Frankensalmon saga demonstrates, genetic modification of food puts American biotech companies and agricultural giants like Monsanto on a head-on collision course with multiple constituencies worldwide: environmentalists, consumers and small food producers, whose interests have until now often seemed at odds.

But if genetic modification of food is a matter of global politics, it is here at home a focal point of the most conventional backroom maneuvering as well. Agribusiness gave millions of dollars to
the Republican and Democratic parties last year. On Wednesday, 13 governors joined forces with the biotech industry to try to persuade American consumers to become more enthusiastic consumers of engineered food. “It makes sense to say that this isn’t just the big, bad chemical companies trying to engineer something to jam down your throats,” said North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer.

How political is the coalition? Consider that two of the group’s three Democratic governors are from states housing the headquarters of biotech gorillas Monsanto and DuPont.

The Clinton administration’s rules themselves may be designed to ease consumer worries rather than protect their health. They establish standards for labeling foods biotech-free, require that companies like A/F Protein provide the Food and Drug Administration with their research data on new biotech products and give the FDA some testing rights. But this is far short of what environmentalists and consumer advocates have been demanding, namely, clear labeling of any products containing genetically modified ingredients.

Indeed, so mild are the new rules that they were greeted rapturously by agricultural corporations. The National Association of Food Processors, for instance, says the administration plan “reflects recommendations that we’ve made repeatedly.” If anything, the new rules seem destined not to ease fears but to rouse greater opposition while those fish eggs await approval on Prince Edward Island.

“What both sides are missing” in these new rules, says Jeremy Rifkin of the
Foundation for Economic Development in Washington and author of “The
Biotech Century,” “is that there is no way to measure the risk. There is
no predictive methodology.” As long ago as 1985, Rifkin says, federal
regulators promised to develop a risk-assessment system for genetically
modified food. They haven’t.

What’s more, Rifkin says, it is not only ecologists and organic farmers who
are skeptical. Insurance companies, probably the most pragmatic corner of
corporate America, are refusing to cover genetically modified products
against long-term catastrophic impact like that of asbestos. “They are
saying they can’t assign risk. That goes to the heart of the problem.”

Rifkin says the new regulations “are designed to
create the veneer of seriously looking at the problems of genetically
modified products.” But the real political pressure, he says, is coming
from the global marketplace. “Europe has spoken. Asia has spoken. Now
McDonald’s has spoken.” Rifkin predicts that “the market won’t buy genetically modified products, and the
genetically modified products won’t deliver on their promises.”

“Companies like Monsanto keep arguing that genetic modification will feed the world, but that is specious,” argues Jonathan Kimmelman, a bioethicist at Yale University. “The financial benefits from genetic modification will flow mostly to the very largest agricultural producers, putting local agricultural economies at a tremendous disadvantage. That is really the central issue here.”

There are also real questions about food safety. In England, Sir Robert May, Tony Blair’s chief science advisor, has declared himself “absolutely at one” with organic farmers and other critics who worry about the unknown long-term impact of genetically modified food.

The whole debate over genetically modified agriculture goes to the heart of cultural interplay in the global economy. Japanese consumers, for instance, don’t like genetically modified products: They will pay up to 10 times as much for unmodified tofu, even though their government has passed labeling requirements far more stringent than the new U.S. rules. As a result, farmers in Minnesota are now turning away from genetically engineered corn and soybeans in a desperate effort to salvage their $3 billion per year in sales to Japan.

Some 70 percent of the land planted with genetically modified crops worldwide is in the United States. As the Frankensalmon saga suggests, genetic engineering almost inevitably has become a matter of American agriculture vs. the world.

Indeed, the Investor Responsibility Action Center reports that genetic modification is the subject of more shareholder resolutions at companies like Coca-Cola and Heinz than any issue since South Africa a decade ago.

An unequal political fight, perhaps, but Celtic mythology had a phrase for such a battle: a “salmon leap.”