Reading List: Four Fish

September 21st, 2010 by Andrea Bennett

Just months after Paul Greenberg’s book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food hit the shelves, the future may have already arrived.

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The Responsibility Project

Just months after Paul Greenberg’s book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food hit the shelves, the future may have already arrived.

In Four Fish, Greenberg -- a writer for The New York Times -- chronicles the domination of salmon, tuna, bass, and cod on seafood markets; as he states, “each is an archive of a particular epochal shift.” He travels to see the only Fair Trade-certified fishing company in the world (run by the Yupik Eskimos). He visits Norwegian mega-farms that use genetic engineering techniques on salmon that were originally developed for sheep. He discusses PCBs and mercury in seafood and writes about how Mediterranean sea bass went global. His contention is that by examining the forces that have shaped how we buy and eat seafood, we can then learn to fight for sustainable seafood. And while 40 years ago everything we ate from the sea was wild, today half of what we eat is farmed.

“Salmon was really the first large-scale domestication project for the fish that we eat,” Greenberg said during a July interview with the NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross. “There are many more farmed salmon in the world than wild salmon, and it’s a kind of replacement of a wild-food system with a domestic-food system that has started to be a model moving forward.”

The timing is interesting. According to a Food and Drug Administration briefing document, the FDA is likely to approve the first genetically modified animal for human consumption -- an Atlantic salmon called the AquAdvantage. The fish has been given a gene from an eel-like fish called the ocean pout, which allows it to grow twice as fast as a traditional Atlantic salmon. It also contains a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon.

According to a recent Washington Post article, AquaBounty -- the MA-based company that first applied to the FDA for permission to sell the AquAdvantage in 1995 -- insists that the fish is identical to an Atlantic salmon except for the speed of its growth. “We’ve been studying this fish for more than 10 years,” Ronald L. Stotish, the company’s chief executive, told the Post. “In characteristics, physiology, physiology, behavior, this is an Atlantic salmon. It looks like an Atlantic salmon. It tastes like an Atlantic salmon.” The team of FDA scientists that reviewed the application agree, stating in the brief, “We have found no biologically relevant difference between food from [AquaBounty salmon] and conventional Atlantic salmon.”

 But not everyone is excited about the fast-growing new fish. "Critical information about the whole process has been kept from the public and organizations that focus on these issues," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch, told the Post. His organization is part of a coalition of 31 companies and restaurant chefs demanding that the FDA deny approval of AquAdvantage.

As for salmon farming, and what he terms its “unfair association” with transgenic salmon like the AquaBounty project, Greenberg says, “If I were tsar of all salmon farming and could redirect investment money at will, I might take all of those dollars that go into transgenic research and put that money into really confronting the problems that plague the [farming] industry.”

Where do you stand in the great fish debate? Are you in the “wild only” camp, or do you buy farmed, too? If you found transgenic salmon at the grocery store, would you buy it, or boycott? Would your opinion change if it was a lot less expensive than your regular choice?