Let's not stop at salmon

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

When U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski introduced legislation last month seeking to ban Aquabounty’s so-called Frankenfish, they put the interests of Alaskan citizens over corporate plutocrats and near-sighted regulators. We should applaud the senators for their intervention on behalf of our state’s most important economic, cultural, and natural resource.

But the simple fact is this: nearly all the food we put into our bodies contains the same genetically modified organisms that we supposedly decry in our debates about this salmon. The corn that finds its way into products as diverse as breakfast cereals and filet mignon has been reengineered by biotech firms to resist a host of pests and pesticides that might otherwise damage the country’s most valuable agricultural good. The soy products that extend meatloaves and enhance soups have undergone similar manipulation in the past two decades. At this point, 90 percent of all soy grown in the United States — 60 million acres or so — is genetically modified, most of it to withstand the application of glyphosphate, a toxic herbicide.

Despite cries from food safety advocates, moreover, the Obama Administration has decided to offer its unqualified support of transgenic biotechnology as the foundation of the 21st century food system. In the last week alone, the USDA gave the green light both to the introduction of genetically-engineered alfalfa and to the deregulation of genetically-engineered sugar beets, two products of questionable value to farmers and consumers.

George Siemon, the CEO of Organic Valley, slammed the rulings, saying that the authorization of GMO sugar beets and alfalfa represents “a clear indication that the USDA is more interested in protecting the biotech industry than the health, safety, environment, and property rights of U.S. farmers and consumers who choose not to grow or consume GMOs.” For Alaskans, the approval of these new commodities sends a clear signal that the administration intends to move forward with its support of Aquabounty’s Frankenfish.

These recent developments suggest that the biotech industry’s influence in Washington is pervasive and widespread, and one bipartisan bill from our senators will do little to change that.

But what we can do is become better informed food consumers. The Frankenfish controversy should make all Alaskans, regardless of political beliefs or party affiliations, take a step back and see the bigger picture. Every time we purchase a soft drink sweetened with corn syrup or a pork roast fattened on soy, we are, in effect, supporting the system that has birthed the same genetically-engineered salmon that threatens the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Alaskans. Seen in this light, drawing a line in the sand at genetically-modified salmon is akin to standing nose-deep in Cook Inlet and not wanting to get your hair wet.

No matter how you look at it, you’re soaked.

If we expect consumers down south to pay a premium for our wild Alaskan salmon, we too should make a similar sacrifice to purchase products that guarantee that we are not eating genetically modified organisms. Certainly, we can push our food producers to utilize non-genetically modified food stuffs; we, too, can purchase foods certified organic by the USDA. Such sacrifices will be difficult, of course, but we will be taking a stand against the biotech oligarchies that have a stranglehold over our food system.

Anything else would be unjust to our fishermen.

• Mink teaches environmental studies at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. and is a summer resident of Sitka, where he runs the Sitka Conservation Society’s Salmon Tours program.

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