Salmonic Wisdom

February 10, 2013

Here’s an update on some breaking news we’ve reported several times before. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released their draft environmental assessment of a genetically-engineered, fast-growing salmon the Friday before Christmas, 2012, and announced the public comment period on Dec. 26. The draft finds no basis for failing to approve the product.

All right, all right! I know it’s lame to call this breaking news if I can wait six weeks before reporting it. I could have reported it in the last Thornapple Blog of 2012, but I chose the occasion to talk about food hubs, instead. I even started the food hubs story by noting how untimely it was. In fact, I can’t even remember when I learned about the FDA’s action on the fast-growing fish. I might or might not have known about it when I wrote my food hubs blog. I did know about it well before this week, but I wasn’t going to break up food ethics icons month and all those cool blogs on rock star farmers in order to report on some stinking fish. And then last week rolled around, and if I was going to blog about the Super Bowl, well, it pretty well had to be last week, didn’t it?

So here we are, six blogs later, just now pointing out that the FDA has cleared a genetically engineered animal for regulatory approval. And here’s the point: I’m willing to bet five dollars to a donut that neither regular reader of the Thornapple blog knew about this before you read it right here. (Anyone wishing to claim their five dollars need only prove that a) you are one of the two regular readers of the blog and b) that you knew about this fish thing before February 10, 2013. I’ll be happy to pay up. I can’t be out more than $10 bucks.)

This is a point worth noting in a food ethics blog not because I’m deeply upset about this action. I don’t think this will turn out to be the environmental catastrophe that some food activists think that it is. Indeed, I remain steadfast in thinking that most of the anti-GMO activism misses all the main points worthy of ethics or activism when it comes to the food system. The point is worth noticing because of the timing of the announcement. FDA has gotten pretty cleaver about making these kind of announcements. Maybe they observed that when all the big studies on the impact that genetically engineered crops have on monarch butterflies got released early on September 11, 2001, nobody paid much attention to them. If you make your potentially stunning and controversial science-related announcement on a day that people are focused on other things, nobody notices.

If you are a government bureaucrat, you are generally not going to be someone who craves the opportunity to be interviewed by reporters from CNN. You don’t want to stir things up. That’s only going to irritate your boss, who was appointed to his or her job by whoever happens to be President at the time, and Presidents generally want to be the center of attention their own selves. They don’t want some nerdy underling in one of science-based regulatory agencies stirring the pot. So you look for opportunities to announce your potentially controversial decisions when reporters and/or the public are focused on other things. You pretty much need to do it on a regular work day, which cuts out weekends. Otherwise, you would just attract attention to yourself.

So clustering activity around Christmas looks pretty good. It’s going to be days before anyone pays any real attention to current events. It was also a good time because odds were good that everybody was going to be focused on the fiscal cliff. Remember that? How soon we forget! Of course FDA hasn’t actually approved these fish yet, despite some statements to the contrary. They’ve just taken another step in that direction. There’s a sixty day comment period on the draft environmental assessment, so it’s not too late for readers of the Thornapple blog to weigh in on the issue. But I wouldn’t look for an actual announcement after the sixty day period expires on Feb. 24 or so. Maybe after the next war.

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