Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fishing for Genetically Engineered Food

UPDATE, Nov. 2015:

GMO Salmon Approval Results in Support and Disapproval: Proponenets call the fish sustainable, while some environmentalists are up in arms.

 As this NYTimes article reports, federal regulators approved a genetically engineered salmon as fit for consumption, clearing the last major obstacle for the first genetically altered animal to reach American supermarkets and dinner tables.  

And this story from AgriPulse: The Food and Drug Administration has approved a fast-growing, genetically engineered salmon for commercial sale, making it the first biotech animal cleared for human consumption.

Also check out the CAST Commentary: The Science and Regulation of Food from Genetically Engineered Animals (free download here at CAST’s website). Led by Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a task force of experts examines current regulations, criticisms of the process, and implications for the future. The commentary focuses on a case study of the AquAdvantage salmon proposal, but the findings have far-reaching effects.

You might also want to take a little time off to go fishing by checking out this earlier blog on the biotech issue.

Genetically Engineered Salmon Story is More Than a Fish Tale

When we fished the farm creek in the early '60s, we were after bullheads and chubs, and I doubt any of us pre-teens would have known how to spell "salmon," let alone catch one. We definitely would not have understood genetic modification, and I don't recall Flash Gordon genetically engineering much of anything in the early science fiction I read by the glow of the night-light back then.

But looking back on it, I think we did have genetically engineered fish. The chubs all looked clone-like. They were shiny, small, and void of any personality, like minnows on steroids. We threw them back as soon as we could get the hooks removed. We older kids would then thread a freshly dug night crawler onto a barb for the little ones and toss our cork bobbers into a deeper area by a fallen tree or on a bend in the pasture. We wanted to catch our version of a science-fiction fish. To a ten-year-old, bullheads had to be the result of genetic engineering: oily skin, flat heads with beady eyes, and stingers ready to paralyze careless kids.

We only caught a few bullheads and none of us was stung. Bumble bees, poison ivy, and wayward hooks were more treacherous. But we kept hoping to catch the big one. We knew a monster bullhead was lurking somewhere in the deeper backwater areas of the creek.

Occasionally we had a few odd fish to take home, but Mom wasn't much interested in cooking up the remains of the day. We lived in hog and cattle country, so fish was not one of our basic food groups.

Fish is a huge part of the worldwide food system, however, and the current debate about GE salmon gives us a taste of the growing controversies in the food production complex. People need to eat: growing populations, finite arable land, and changing climate patterns equal a global need for food. But environmental issues and uncertainties about health keep some hesitant about moving forward with GE/GM/GMO expansion. The salmon controversy could be headed in the same direction that many other ag-issues have gone: bold generalizations and superficial discussions leading to polarized groups and unsatisfactory policy. Credible research is the best way to work it out.

Most of us are eating GM plants now, and the debate about genetically engineered animals has moved onto the front pages. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) encourages the public and policymakers to be informed, do the research, stay objective, and use a science-based, thoughtful approach to solving challenges. The CAST commentary about GE foods is one avenue. I would say something about CASTing around for other enlightening publications, but that type of pun is definitely one worthy of being thrown back in the water. Happy Fishing. by dan gogerty

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Twittering with Stamps and Envelopes
My parents have been living on the same central Iowa farm for the past 61 years, and even though they still don’t have internet access, they’ve been producing messages for their own “twitter group” since the 1970s. Dad types out letters for friends and relatives on a regular basis, so with mom’s help, they make copies of a down-on-the-farm newsletter and mass-mail it. Now they have access to a photocopy machine, and in an age when some young people hardly know what a stamp is, they mail out over 230 letters monthly. Dad likes to sprinkle his letters with “tweets” about days long gone on the farm. Some samples:

-School wasn’t trouble-free back then either. Like the Halloween when boys from Mud Swamp School tipped over the toilets at Grant No. 8 and tried to blame us. In town, Main Street looked like a war zone with manure spreaders and farm equipment blocking the streets.

-Dale said his high school graduation in 1931 was low-key because both banks in town closed a month earlier. After their banquet, the kids looked for jobs candling eggs or shocking oats.

- Stealing watermelons was the main form of entertainment then. Old man Jones’ 12-gauge sounded like a canon echoing across a moonlit melon patch.

- Bootleggers were the main law benders in the community according to Bill. Few got rich in the small town, but most managed to turn a profit, depending on how much they watered down the alcohol.

-One old timer in church used to chew a wad of tobacco which wasn’t a problem unless the sermon got lengthy. His cheeks got fuller and fuller and people often got splashed with tobacco juice if they followed too close as he left the church and let go with a big brown mouthful.

-In the days before health food, Uncle Berry ate gravy and fried mush and lived to be 92. During Prohibition, he also kept his cupboard well stocked with vanilla extract and other condiments containing a pinch of alcohol.

-Last week, a farmer nearby hooked two 24-row planters together to plant 800 acres in one day. Francis told me that years ago his neighbor was planting corn with a team of horses. A lightning strike traveled down the half-mile of planter wire and killed man and horse.

-Cousin Harold says he doesn’t enjoy winter as much as he did as a kid in Zearing. He and his pals used to skate down the Minerva Creek seven miles to St. Anthony then catch a ride back in the engine of the old M&St. L.

-Dale said they’d sell 50 to 75 cases of eggs at Madison’s store on a busy Saturday night. One customer occasionally stuffed a few “free eggs” in his overcoat pocket to take home, so Dale’s friend, Harold, used to bump against the egg-lifter so he had scrambled eggs for supper.

Some folks still enjoy the old-fashioned Twitter with stamps and envelopes, but like most people nowadays, farmers tweet, blog, and use Facebook at a steady pace. CAST stays actively involved with agricultural news and information through its Twitter account. Join us at!/CASTagScience to keep up with the happenings “down on the farm” and throughout the world of agriculture.  Dan Gogerty, CAST Comm. Ed.