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Published: Monday, 10/11/2010

Genetically engineered food: should we be afraid?

Maybe we're still under the sway of those cheap horror flicks of the '50s.

In the aftermath of the atomic age, people were nervous about radiation. Filmmakers — particularly those with little money and less talent — learned to prey on those fears by making a series of movies in which ordinary animals are exposed to radiation and grow to monstrous, lethal size.

Thus, we had the giant ants of Them! (actually a pretty good movie, as those things go), the giant grasshoppers of Beginning of the End, the giant spider of Earth vs. the Spider, the giant leeches of Attack of the Giant Leeches, and so many more.

Though the movies were laughable, those images apparently lodged in our brains. There they sat, seemingly benign, until a company called AquaBounty Technologies announced they want to start selling genetically engineered salmon.

The company's scientists can take a growth-hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and insert it into an egg from a standard Atlantic salmon. The result is a fish that reaches its full size in half the time it takes a regular salmon to mature.

The benefits to AquaBounty and seafood producers and distributors are obvious: salmon will be more plentiful and cheaper to produce.

But a lot of people are opposed to the whole idea of genetically engineered food and are putting considerable pressure on the Food and Drug Administration not to allow its consumption for humans. More tests are needed, they say in a recent letter signed by several U.S. congressmen and more than 50 concerned organizations, and the tests that have been performed were either 20 years old or sponsored by AquaBounty itself.

Moreover, a recent poll conducted by the partisan Food & Water Watch states that 78 percent of Americans believe the genetically engineered fish should not be sold as food. And every one of those people who disapprove has the same thought: Giant Mutant Salmon, like the three-eyed fish Blinky on The Simpsons.

Scientifically, that is improbable. What the scientists are doing is creating a little evolution of their own. The fish they produce will still be fish; they'll even still be salmon. They'll just be a little different, genetically.

The question is, do we want our scientists to engage in artificial evolution? What are the ethical consequences of playing God? And isn't the moral concern even greater when the sole purpose of this experiment is just to make a little more money a little faster?

Time and again, we have seen cases where altering the natural state of things has led to major problems. Kudzu was imported as a decorative plant, and now the fast-growing vine is smothering vast swaths of the South. Zebra mussels hitchhiked on the hulls of ships and now clog American waterways and overwhelm native mussel populations.

The people at AquaBounty say this will never happen with their salmon. The fish they create will be sterile — even if they escape into natural waterways, they will not be able to reproduce.

But the opponents say the risk is too great. Nothing is impossible. Things always go wrong. The law of averages states that over time, everything that can happen, will happen.

And by then it will be too late. We'll be overrun by giant, two-headed, monster salmon, walking freely across America.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade or 419-724-6155.

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