17 December, 2015

The Speedy Salmon

Check out my op-ed "The Speedy Salmon" in Republica.


Sushma Joshi
            About a year ago, I read about GM salmon. It greatest virtue, it appeared, was that it could grow at twice the speed of its natural cousins. Instead of the 30 months it takes to fatten a salmon, scientists had bred one to be ready in just 18 months. This project, reported the Guardian USA, was taking place at some undisclosed location in the Panama highlands in secrecy. Next to it, oddly, was a fishery that grew organic fish for Whole Foods. The two centers, the article said, was separated only by a stream.

Yesterday, I read the USA’s FDA had approved this salmon for human consumption. They had also approved it without requiring the makers of this salmon to label it as genetically modified.

            The fact this salmon grows to its full size in half the time, trumpet its advocates, means that it’s the ideal fish for a growing world. No waiting around for the fingerlings to grow to a family-sized dinner.  For a planet where billions live in a chronically undernourished stage, this GM salmon is the answer to hunger. Or so the clever marketers want you to believe.

First, salmon is a rich-people food. So rich people are going to get this beast that shot up, like Jack’s beanstalk, within a few magic moments.

This reminded me of an incident when I visited the home of a millionaire in a coast off New Jersey. The young woman had a one-year-old son. The child was taken care of by a Jamaican nanny paid a triple digit salary. I took a look at the child, and I had a Nepali response: Oh, he’s big!, I said. People in Nepal look at size because nutrition of infants is a major concern in a country with food shortage. The mother was immediately worried. “He’s too big for his age, you think?” She looked at me with great anxiety. I looked at the baby again. He did look big for his age. “No, no, he’s healthy big,” I said. I wasn’t used to this maternal fear, but I understood what she feared. She was worried he was growing too fast!

The problems of the rich is that they have unlimited access to nutrition. This doesn’t mean this is healthy for the child. A child who grows too fast could signal the first phase of gigantism. Or else it could signal unnatural growth that could later lead to health problems. The only healthy way to grow, of course, is at a natural pace. Which means taking the appropriate time it takes a child to reach his/her ideal size.

Of course, rich people love speed. But do they want to eat a speedy salmon?

But for the creators of GM salmon, speed is everything. Like a car that will run 200 miles an hour, or a  processor that can crunch a million gigabytes within a second, GM food producers want a salmon that will-zip!-grow up in half its intended growth span-time. But the problems of gigabyte processing and mechanical car speed is different from the speeds of biological growth. The problem in America, however, is that these two issues are conflated, since the physical virtues of speed and efficiency has been elevated to the status of a moral virtue. America has an educational system where the knowledge of physical and biological sciences have long been devalued in favor of those great entrepreneurial virtues-making money, and making it fast

Lets say that a speedy salmon will in fact provide more food for the world’s hungry. In that case, wouldn’t it be morally imperative for the world’s big countries to spend research funds on creating what in essence is Jack’s beanstalks—ie; vegetable and animal food matter that grows at the speed of light? Sprinkle some white powder and your salmon fingerling grows at not 18 months, but 18 days. Why not 18 minutes?

The “why not?” is pretty clear to biologists and people who have worked with animals, even if its not clear to corporations looking to make speedy profits. Put a rat on accelerated growth hormones and he will die from multiple organ failures. A Jack’s Beanstalk tomato plant I bought in Germany shot up to about 5 times the height of a normal tomato plant in Kathmandu. I was gratified-until a night of rain brought the giant plant crashing down, its leaves spotted with yellow rot, onto the ground. Nature cannot be hurried in this manner without great side-effects.

The speedy salmon is one more manifestation of a world addicted to speed that wants everything instantly. Food has become the victim in this quest for profits and instant gratification. Pesticides and growth hormones are the allies of companies that would seize this most basic of human requirements and turn it into a commodity that creates great profit. But in order for the speedy salmon to bring speedy profits, people--the base of consumers--have to co-operate and agree to consume.

The Slow Food movement started out of Europe, and is in direct opposition to the speedy salmon method of food production. Slow Food grows food the way it was intended to be grown—at its own biological pace and rhythm. The Slow Food movement is growing. More and more people, especially the rich who can afford it, prefer to eat the boring old way—waiting for the salmon (or tomato) to grow to its real size.  

What would the GM advocates take—a salmon that’s gone upstream at its own rhythm in the ice-cold waters of Alaska, or an 18 month fattie that’s bred in the Panama highlands in tropical heat? I suspect even the evangelists of speed will pay a premium and wait 30 months to get a wild, glacial water fed Alaskan salmon.

The worry, of course, is speed technologies may be used to create food for the poor, not the rich. A corporation who sees a profit in creating quick food is going to force-feed it to the vast numbers of the world’s poor. And that’s where the world is going to have to keep a close watch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yet another anti-science & tech whining from a liberal artsy. And that too written using the latest product of science & tech. Healthy skepticism is good - that's how science & tech advances. But calling every progress a world-ending specter just makes this writer look like a fool.