Mitch Daniels: There’s plenty that’s fishy about fight against salmon

What should one make of the following set of facts? A federal government, urged on by self-designated advocates for the “public interest,” blocks for a quarter of a century the availability of an irrefutably safe product that would improve Americans’ health, lower consumer costs and deliver a host of environmental benefits. Sound fishy? You’re right.

For about three decades, science has known how to genetically modify salmon so the fish can be safely and economically raised anywhere, not just in the seaside pens that have long been the only alternative to the continuing depletion of the world’s ocean stocks. Scientists worldwide have attested for over a decade, without credible opposition, to the safety of these fish and their essential indistinguishability from other salmon. But only in March last year was this long-stalled technology released from regulatory purgatory by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and cleared for operation in the United States.

Consider the advantages we have been forgoing. Salmon is a healthy food, strongly recommended by the American Heart Association, the Mayo Clinic and, ironically, the federal government’s own nutritional guidelines for at least the past 20 years. Consumers aware of its heart-friendly qualities increasingly seek out salmon—consumption is rising rapidly, leading to overfishing of wild populations, and the knock-on overfishing of other species taken for the up to five pounds of fish meal necessary to grow one non-genetically engineered, or GE, salmon in today’s coastal farms. (Some scientists believe the world’s natural supply has hit “peak fish,” with more than 90% of stocks having no capacity for more production.)

Because they grow to market weight in 16 to 18 months rather than the 32 to 36 months for conventional varieties, GE salmon use 25% less feed, alleviating the overfishing problem while reducing production costs and therefore consumer costs by 20%. GE salmon are efficient sources of protein, needing only one pound of feed to produce one pound of weight. This compares with tilapia and chicken at about 2-to-1, pigs at 3-to-1 and cattle at 8-to-1.

Another benefit to the environment: Reducing the reliance on oceanfront pens, which generate polluting organic and inorganic waste material. These pens are prone to parasitic infestations that can spread to wild salmon; at inland facilities, the infestations could be quarantined and managed.

If those inland facilities were built near population centers, the salmon steak being trucked from just down the road would entail far lower carbon dioxide emissions than if it were shipped, as much salmon is, from Norway or Chile.

Unlike today’s coastal fish farms, GE salmon will come from almost entirely self-contained production processes. The emissions involved are primarily recycled water well-suited to vegetable or greenhouse growing, and small amounts of filtered solids usable as fertilizer. Because the salmon are by design infertile and raised only in secure, inland, indoor facilities, there is zero chance of crossbreeding with native species.

So, you say, what’s been the problem? As usual, when a seemingly clear public interest is being anomalously violated, one can look for the involvement of a special interest. In this case, it’s commercial fishing interests, most notably from Alaska, who have been eager to squelch such a cost-competitive competitor. At least we can understand their motives.

But the years of opposition by the self-styled green lobby is less logical. Given the positives for the environment from GE salmon, the greens’ obstruction has to be added to the list of bizarre cognitive dissonances to which this community has proved so vulnerable. We have seen the reflexive attacks on carbon-free nuclear power, and on fracking, even though the natural gas it produces has done more to reduce U.S carbon dioxide emissions than every other factor combined. Then there is the anti-scientific blockade of GE crops that could dramatically improve the lives of those in some of the world’s most impoverished countries.

The green campaign against beta-carotene-rich “golden rice”—which could save hundreds of thousands of undernourished children from blindness and death caused by vitamin A deficiency—prompted more than 100 Nobel Prize winners to write to Greenpeace in 2016 challenging its baseless attacks. At some point, those who would ask us to trust them on environmental issues should try to align their heads with their hearts on issues such as these.

Ultimately, the worst damage of anti-science lies in its opportunity costs. Because they are not yet apparent to ordinary citizens, such costs do not generate an outcry commensurate with the harms they impose. No congressman or bureaucrat has ever been put out of work because of the innovation that was blocked, its benefits never realized. Salmon shoppers had no idea they were being shafted on by a combination of fishing interests, self-appointed advocates and compliant regulators. At least in the case of the latter two groups, let’s just say they had better fish to fry.•


Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.

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