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October 2, 2010

Supersized salmon? No thanks

Davenport Garden Center owner Dennis Valente drizzled maple syrup over sweet potatoes in the cafeteria kitchen while a group of sixth-graders topped pizza crusts with pesto they'd made using basil from their school garden.

Kids and their parents loaded up compostable plates and cups with samples of Otsego County apples, Delaware County cheese, butternut squash lasagna and chicken quesadillas, while local children's musician Skip West strummed his guitar.

The Greater Plains FROG (Friends of Regional Organic Gardening) Food Festival at my daughter's elementary school last weekend was a celebration of food the way food should be: nurtured with care in gardens and on small farms, free of unnecessary drugs and chemicals, using sustainable practices and techniques.

It was about as far as you could get from the genetically engineered salmon debated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier in the week.

Developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies Inc., the salmon would be produced by transplanting part of a gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout into the growth gene of a Chinook salmon, and then transferring this genetic material into the fertilized eggs of a North Atlantic salmon.

The resulting salmon, famously dubbed "Frankenfish" by Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, grows during the summer and winter (unlike ordinary salmon), reaching full size in half the time it takes for natural salmon and consuming less food in the process.

Though preliminary FDA findings deemed the genetically modified salmon safe to eat, environmental and consumer advocates have urged the FDA to proceed with caution. Environmentalists fear the impact on ocean ecosystems if some of the genetically modified salmon escape their inland tanks. Consumer advocates are concerned about the possible health implications — including allergies and increased cancer risk — of consuming largely untested genetically modified animal products.

Of course, genetically engineered food is not new. For years, Americans have been eating more foods than we may realize made from sugar beets, corn, soybeans and other crops genetically fortified to resist pests, disease and weed killers — not to mention dairy products from cows given bovine growth hormone. However, FDA approval of AquaAdvantage salmon would mark the first time genetically modified animals would be legal to sell for human consumption, and this could pave the way for more corporate science experiments.

If the FDA does approve the fish, it should require labels indicating that the salmon is genetically engineered. Consumers have a right to know where the food they are putting into their shopping carts came from and how it was produced.

Proponents of the genetically engineered salmon say fisheries are becoming depleted, and new farming methods are needed to keep up with global demand.

I can certainly see the benefits of science and technology when it comes to finding new and better ways to feed the world. Genetically engineered seeds and crops may be crucial in the future, as the world's population grows and our natural resources dwindle. However, messing with the ecosystem seems counterproductive. And somehow, I don't imagine the folks at AquaBounty Inc. angling to market their fish to homeless shelters and undeveloped countries. More than likely, they are simply looking to capitalize on growing demand at the supermarket (how many times have you heard about the health benefits of the Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon?) by engineering a larger supply that's cheaper to produce.

I'm a fan of salmon, but I'd rather limit my consumption than take a chance on a product that seems, well, a little fishy.

I hope the FDA thoroughly studies the risks of introducing genetically engineered animals into the food supply.

In the meantime, I will be picking apples, stockpiling squash and adding local products I tried for the first time at the school festival to my shopping list.

Becoming a "locavore" is looking better every day.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.

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