Something Fishy

July 1, 2012

There are these days in late June and early July when you really just don’t have any ideas. Sure, there are the “old reliables”: tomatoes, weeds… You know what I’m talkin’ about. And there are always more things to say about eggs. But does anybody really care when the sun is out and the temperature is even a few degrees cooler than it was earlier in the week? In fact, if all has gone according to plan, I’m riding the train from Amsterdam to Brussels as this blog is being posted. Yes, indeed. I’ve found a way to make the robots into my friends, and that’s one last reason that I’m learning how to separate from my computer for a matter of days at a time.

So again, if all has gone according to plan, I’m on my way to Brussels for a meeting where some of my European colleagues will report out on the research they have been doing on European attitudes to animal biotechnology—that would be the use of genetic engineering to create new breeds of animal with special traits that are useful to human beings. The European Union spent a boxcar load of money to find out some things that I could have told them for not much more than the price of my ticket from Lansing to Brussels.

First, people do think that the use of these genetic modification tools on animals raises ethical problems. Some people are worried about how the animals feel afterwards, while others just think it’s wrong. Second, people overcome these qualms when the purpose of the genetic engineering is to improve human health. Lots of mice have been genetically engineered over the last twenty five years so that they can be used to study important diseases, for example. My European colleagues asked people about a rabbit that’s been genetically engineered to produce an important drug in its blood.

Third, people are especially troubled when the animal is intended to be consumed as food. Here the big ticket item for some time has been salmon that have been genetically engineered so that they grow much faster than normal. Nobody wants these genetically engineered fish. I wrote a piece that’s on the web that has a more extended discussion of the issues for those of you who are interested. The odd thing here is that over the twenty years that we have been debating genetically engineered fish, fish breeders (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a fish breeder) have come up with fast growing salmon that are NOT genetically engineered. Even though all the environmental risks apply to both genetically engineered and non-genetically engineered fast growing fish, people don’t seem to be particularly exercised about the non-genetically engineered salmon.

And finally, people are just kind of annoyed about animals that are genetically engineered for art projects or simply for amusement. There’s the the GloFish®, for example. That’s a zebra-fish that fluoresces very impressively under a blacklight. You may have some in your aquarium at home. There are also animals that are represented as serious art. People kind of don’t like this, but they are not so cheesed as they are when the fish are changed to improve the efficiency of food production.

Of course, the fact that I could have told them this doesn’t count for much in the world of European public policy. It’s important to get some validation, and that validation only comes with expensive social science. Maybe I got myself in the wrong line of work way back there in graduate school. But at least my European friends are kind enough to invite me over to Belgium and share the party experience with all the European regulators who can now be told that indeed, the expensive surveys and focus groups support what Thompson has been telling us all along. Moules et frites, anyone?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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