Frankenfish, Milk, and the Return of Acid Rain

One More Reason to Avoid Farmed Salmon

Prince Edward Island bills itself as a bucolic haven of pristine beaches, white clapboard farmhouses, and quaint fishing villages. But the province is also home to one of the scariest places I've ever visited. There, in 2002, I toured a small warehouse-like building housing a dozen aquariums containing salmon that were genetically modified to grow twice as fast as normal salmon.

A biologist showed me fish in one tank that were about the size of hot dogs. In an adjacent tank, salmon easily the size of my forearm paddled in listless circles. The fish in the two tanks were exactly the same age and had been fed identical diets. The giants, however, carried a gene that came from a cold-water-dwelling ocean pout, an eel-like fish from the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. That gene enabled them to continuously produce a growth hormone. Normal salmon stop excreting growth hormones when water temperatures cool.

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So far, the Frankenfish have been confined to the laboratory. But that may change. Last week, AquaBounty Technologies, the company that bioengineered the salmon, told the New York Times that it had completed most of the steps required for Food and Drug Administration approval. "Perhaps in the next few months, we expect to see a final approval," company president Ronald Stotish said.

Stotish told the Times that his "AquAdvantage" fish were "identical in every measurable way" (no pun intended, one assumes) to traditional farmed Atlantic salmon. Therefore, to label them as genetically modified would be "misleading."

Shortly after visiting the Prince Edward Island laboratory, I began steering clear of farmed salmon. AquAdvantage's pending approval is yet another reason I'm glad I did.

Land of Milk and Money

During the recession, the market for organic milk tanked, along with the rest of the economy. In an unprecedented move, Organic Valley, the country's largest organic dairy, told the 1,600 farmers that supply it with milk to cut their production by 7 percent. The cut enabled the company to keep paying the same rate for the milk it purchased, which is about twice what conventional milk sells for.

Last week, Organic Valley announced that farmers could go back to 100 percent production beginning Aug. 1 in light of improved market conditions. "Raising the quota is a great accomplishment for our farmer-owned cooperative, and a testament to our democratic process, said company "C-I-E-I-O," George Siemon, in a press release. "One year ago, we committed to create a sustainable solution through a supply management program to avoid farmer pay cuts."

Interestingly, Siemon's announcement came about the same time that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was meeting in Wisconsin, Organic Valley's home state, with 500 dairy farmers, industry representatives, and politicians from across the country, who pleaded to change the national milk-pricing formula and to prosecute big dairy firms for antitrust violations. But I didn't read any mention of an approach that worked in at least one proven case: supply management.

Acid Rain Redux

Remember acid rain? The stuff that was killing our lakes and denuding our mountain tops? The stuff that was supposed to be a thing of the past, thanks to reduced sulfur dioxide emissions? Well, acid rain is back and worse than ever, only this time the culprit isn't coal-fired power plants—it's farms.

Writing on Grist, Tom Laskawy, in his usual clearheaded way, explains that industry has given us an acidic "double-whammy." Chemical fertilizers spread on fields produce ammonia vapor. Feedlots, full of tens of thousands of animals fed crops grown on those fields, also emit ammonia. All that ammonia produces nitric acid that returns to the earth as poisonous rain, which, as Laskawy points out, is even worse for the environment than the sulfuric acid emissions of yore. His article makes for a chilling must read on a drizzly summer's day.