Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Terror of the Three-eyed Fish

In the blog post “What If Frankenfish Won’t Stay In Their Cages?” the writer, Jess Leber, makes many assertions regarding the farming of genetically engineered salmon. Three of such claims strongly oppose the proposed farming of these so called “Frankenfish.” She claims that (1) the genetically engineered salmon will escape from captivity, (2) these will then breed with wild salmon, and (3) this interbreeding will cause the extinction of wild salmon species. Little to no evidence is put forward by Leber to support these strong claims.

The fundamental flaw I see in her argument is that she makes these very one-sided allegations without, for the most part, providing proper evidence, but instead referencing to other opinionated bloggers such as her. In other words, she backs up her own claims with other equally unsupported sources. From this flimsy foundation, I find myself questioning the validity of these claims which Leber usually fails to justify.

The fact that the writer makes claims based on information taken from secondary sources is the main reason why I believe the evidence isn’t strong enough to make said claims. For example, Leber asserts that the FDA has approved the genetically engineered salmon safe for human consumption based on “scarily insufficient testing.” However, she fails to elaborate on the methodology of the testing or produce any sort of evidence which may support the claim that this testing was indeed insufficient. She instead references to a blog posting on the very same website which just so happens to make the same unsupported claim in different words.

In her post, Leber asserts that genetically engineered salmon are an environmental risk because they will eventually escape captivity. Her argument for this assumption is that, in the past, we have seen farm salmon escape into the wild and mix with wild salmon. However, she does not provide any evidence which relates to the specific case of AquaBounty’s GE salmon, the case at hand. These genetically engineered salmon are to be kept in land-based facilities, effectively isolating them from wild salmon populations. Leber neglects to mention this fact when asserting her claim that these salmon will pose an environmental risk. If the salmon are being bred and stored on land, away from wild species’ ecosystem, then I see no argument for environmental risk.

The writer’s second major claim is one that, once again, is completely unsupported by any hard evidence. She references another blog which presents the same unsubstantiated claim that these genetically engineered salmon could possibly breed with wild salmon species. The GE salmon that could be produced by AquaBounty are said to be 100% sterile. However, Leber writes that “about 5 percent of them could conceivably breed” without presenting any evidence to back up this claim. After following her sources, I was unable to find anything but the same groundless claim that these fish are not completely sterile as they are said to be.

Leber’s third main claim, that interbreeding between genetically engineered salmon and wild salmon will cause the eventual extinction of the wild species, is one which I do not disagree with. Rather, I disagree with the intended impact of the claim. McGinnity et al (2003) show that the invasion of farm salmon into wild populations can lead to the extinction of the wild species within 40 generations. While this is true, the previous two claims mentioned above would have to have been true for this third to even be possible. Therefore, this last claim appears to be a scare tactic aimed directly at the unsuspecting, open-minded reader. I see this as an attempt to cause uncertainty in the minds of readers, leading to feelings of anxiety about accepting genetically engineered salmon as a safe and reliable project.

The general trend in Leber’s unsubstantiated claims is an incorrect interpretation of the precautionary principle. She believes risk is associated with genetically engineered salmon, but in reality it is uncertainty which is present, two fundamentally different concepts. Leber’s strong precautionary principle view does not take into account that uncertainty is present in all matters such as these. Therefore, it is not a viable solution to refuse all that may have uncertainty. This point of view is regressive.


McGinnity, P., P. Prodöhl, A. Ferguson, R. Hynes, N. O Maoiléidigh, N. Baker, D. Cotter, B. O’Hea, D. Cooke, G. Rogan, J. Taggart & T. Cross. 2003. Fitness reduction and potential extinction of wild populations of Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, as a result of interactions with escaped farm salmon. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 270(1532): 2443–2450.

Benefits of Land-Based Aquaculture Systems.

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