Thursday, March 14, 2013

GMO Salmon

This weekend's New York Times brought the interesting story of AquaBounty's genetically modified salmon, which are genetically engineered to grow twice as fast as normal Salmon. A few choice bits:
"In 1993, the company approached the Food and Drug Administration about selling a genetically modified salmon that grew faster than normal fish. In 1995, AquaBounty formally applied for approval. Last month, more than 17 years later, the public comment period...was finally supposed to conclude. But the F.D.A. has extended the deadline...

Appropriately, it has been subjected to rigorous reviews... scientists, including the F.D.A.’s experts, have concluded that the fish is just as safe to eat as conventional salmon and that, raised in isolated tanks, it poses little risk to wild populations.
Why the delay?

... some suspect that political considerations have played a role in drawing the approval process out to tortuous lengths. Many of the members of Congress who oppose the modified fish represent states with strong salmon industries. And some nonprofit groups seem to be opposing the modified salmon reflexively, as part of an agenda to oppose all animal biotechnology, regardless of its safety or potential benefits.

Even the White House might be playing politics with the salmon. “The delay, sources within the government say, came after meetings with the White House, which was debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon, a move likely to infuriate a portion of its base.”
anti-biotech groups, which traffic in scare tactics rather than science...
This story brings three thoughts to mind.

1. So who is "anti-science?" I can't resist. There were a lot of potshots at Republicans for being anti-science, some well-deserved. But "science" is abundantly clear here. "Science" is indeed wrong at times, but if we want policy based on "science," the safety of GMO foods is about as good as it gets. There's plenty of magical thinking on both left and right, it turns out.

2.  $10,000 dollars invested in the stock market in 1993 is worth $50,000 today ($31,477 after inflation)  yes, even after the crash. It was already worth $37,600 ($32,700 after inflation) in 1999.  Remember, AcquaBounty hasn't sold a single fish. The cost of 20 years delay is enormous, amounting to a huge tax disincentive.

3. We need growth. Where does growth come from? Modern growth theory is abundantly clear. New ideas, new processes, new businesses that raise productivity. Like a new idea that lets us double the growth rate of farmed salmon. And, yes, lower profits of current salmon fishermen, much to the relief of wild salmon.

GMO foods are, potentially, a huge game changer. Once every 50 years or so, we bump up against a Malthusian limit, and a new idea frees us again. Fixing airborne nitrogen. Green revolution. Now, GMO foods. GMO plants are being bred to use less fertilizer and insecticide, i.e. to be better for the environment, as well as to cure vitamin A deficiency, produce less waste, and so on. No, dear Greenpeace, organic farming is not the answer, unless we use a lot more land for agriculture, starve out half the people, or believe in magic.  (It's too bad organizations like this suffer such mission creep. I would happily support their efforts on behalf of endangered species.)

Or maybe not. The lesson of industrial policy is that academic bloggers are just as bad as government bureaucrats in finding the next game changer. But there are hundreds of similar game-changers underway. Read any popular science magazine. Will we let the winners bear fruit?

Why do countries and civilizations fail? When interests vested in the status quo or magical thinking stop that process.  A long decay precedes the crises. I am reminded of the famous failures, such as the Chinese Emperor's ban on long-range shipping, at a time when Chinese ships were way better than Portugese.

Update: A very nice article by Henry Miller on GM foods, titled "Anti-Genetic Engineering Activism: Why the Bastards Never Quit." Henry is obviously much more knowledgeable than I am.


  1. John, what is interesting is that you use an Op-Ed in NYTimes as if it is the ultimate arbiter of the truth. Perhaps the story is more complicated? Changes to human food supply should not be taken or considered lightly. Let's not confuse that sort of innovation with self-driving cars, etc.

    1. Dear Anonymous, My read is that the author is not arguing that this issue (concerns surrounding it) should be taken lightly. While NYT cannot be arbiter in this case FDA definitely can. Since FDA has not found any environmental or food healthy concerns the question - why the delay is very appropriate?

    2. The point is about government failure, not if changing the food supply is good or bad. The question is: how would the government know?
      Information instead of regulation is the point. Allow, but print "GMO Salmon. 50% cheaper, there are researches showing it is fine, but it is YOUR decision to eat it or not".
      So bad to see that the USA is losing this battle against these control freaks obsessed with regulations and governments.
      Well, on the other hand, it opens space for the next biggest economy in the future.

  2. Yes John, changes to the human food supply should not be taken or considered lightly. 17 years isn't nearly enough time!! We also can't change our soda sizes or corn subsidies until we get at least 20 years of studys to show that a 22 oz soda or massive corn subsidises to the point that everything we eat has high fructose corn syrup in it, have been completed and approved by the communist in chief.

  3. There should be a name for this. I think "salmon barrel politics" might be appropriate.

  4. Label it, and raise it in total isolation, and it'll be just fine with everyone. The mfg. is fighting both those points, for years now.
    BTW... Harmless??? See:
    Turns out GM foods actually GM US! Extreme caution IS warranted.

    1. Dude cite some research or something. Some weirdo making videos is hardly convincing.

  5. It is precisely this kind of mechanism that is missing from current macro models. When government spends $1 is wastes some fraction of it through over-regulation, rent-seeking, corruption, etc. So theoretical multipliers like those in Chritiano, et al. grossly overstate the case for government involvement in the economy.

    John is right. The price for equalizing incomes and socializing private risks and protecting the status quo is low growth.

  6. What kind of testing has it gone thru? For how long? Before I eat it, someone else will have to for at least 10 yrs, and then publish the results.

  7. John: I am sure you know William McNeill. Many years ago when I was an undergraduate, I had the privilege of taking a World History course from him. One of the many memorable and wise things he said was in the context of a public lecture the previous evening by the then well known "futurist" Herman Kahn.

    Mr. McNeill said that many people were concerned about the social disruption caused by constant technological change, but that in China during the Ming Dynasty, the bureaucracy was able to get control of that and slow it to a crawl by constant political interference. He was more concerned by that possibility than by too much innovation.

    Sadly, he was prophetic.

  8. John, some of us have thought very long and hard about the problems you raise. I believe it really comes down to a breakdown in trust.

    There has only ever been one objection to GMO salmon of GMO cows or pigs or chickens and that is the interbreeding problem. As the article notes, there is a big if: if raised in isolated tanks, it poses little risk to wild populations.

    The problem is, in a world of Jamie Dimons, will the fish be raised in isolated tanks? Or, will they end up like our Everglades python population or our flying carp, soon to be in Lake Michigan. I don't, today, trust the businesses to keep their fish in the tanks, so to speak.

    Now, you won't like hearing this but I have resolved that we have a chicken and egg problem to which we know the answer. We on the left can control our crazies but you on the right cannot control yours.

    If you want to solve this problem, the the place to start is for you to starting controlling your crazies,so that we can rebuild trust. Get Rush and Beck off the air, get a whole new set of moderate Republicans in the house, people like Mitt's Dad, and we might so forward.

    1. Darn that nasty old first amendement which stops us from getting Rush and Beck off the air...

      Seriously, you evoke exactly the problem. Societies that grow and expand have always accepted some risk. Good thing the FAA wasn't around for the wright brother's first flight. And our history is as full of spectacular failures as well as expansion. But if we wait to adopt any innovation until it is proved 100%, beyond the faintest possible doubt, and with the adversarial system allowing opposed economic interests to raise endless challenges, then we will never adopt any innovation.

    2. "There has only ever been one objection to GMO salmon of GMO cows or pigs or chickens and that is the interbreeding problem."

      I disagree. While we may be concerned about escape and interbreeding with accompanying disruption of the eco-system that is not the only concern.

      I would be concerned that the genetic modification would change the chemical composition in the fish in a way that was harmful to humans. It might take a very long time to discover if the fish were harmful to eat. As for Professor Cochrane's points about risk taking: (1) risks that were reasonable 100 years ago are not reasonable now; (2) some of those risks taken 100 years ago killed people.

      I agree with Professor Cochrane about the Second Amendment. If people want to listen to a foul mouthed drug addict spouting conspiracy theories then they have the right to listen to Rush.

    3. How exactly have you controlled Bill Maher, Michael Moore, George Soros, Sean Penn, and Paul Krugman? (Yes, Krugman IS a crazy).

      You want to build trust - the place to start is to control the liberal impulse to declare - always with the most unctuous, self-serving satisfaction - that the problem is always with the "extremists" on the other side of the political aisle. It's always the dead Republicans that liberals say they could work with. This current bunch - oh heavens, they're so extreme.

      How should we "get Rush and Beck off the air"? What do you suggest we do, that would be legal and within the bounds of the constitution? Can we do the same with Bill Maher? THAT will really "build trust". Please tell us, enlightened and democratic liberal, who we should control and how we should control them, so that we can earn your precious trust. We troglodytes need your assistance.

  9. "John, some of us have thought very long and hard about the problems you raise."

    It appears that some of you have been thinking 17 years or more. That *is* a long time. And, if you multiply the 17 years by the level of intensity "some of you" have been applying to that effort, one would expect an answer by now.

    I doubt that anyone would disagree that the higher the risk entailed, the more cautious one should be. That's all part of a risk/benefit analysis.

    Frankly, I'm not in a position to judge on which side of that line risk/benefit line the decision should fall. I've got enough stuff to read and worry about other than the risk-to-benefit ratio of king sized salmon. However, I'm comfortable in saying this: We would all be better off if, within those 17 years, the FDA would come up with a decision. If the answer is "no go", then they can articulate the reasons for that answer and companies like AcquaBounty can apply their capital and their talent to other productive endeavors. I'd suggest perhaps genetically modifying cock roaches to make them smaller.

  10. While it's certainly possible to make comparisons between skepticism of GMOs and climate change (how much evidence is enough? Who bears the burden of proof? What are the consequences of model risk?) , believing that evolution is false because the earth is 5000 years old is a completely different category of error. Like believing the earth is flat. You just don't get that scale of gross ignorance/stupidity in any issue typically associated with the left. The fact is, the best scientists in the world disproportionately identify as liberals, and podunks overwhelmingly identify with the Tea Party. As Rick Santorum once put it during a momentary lapse of crazy: "we will never have the elite, smart people on our side." Yup.

  11. I am totally Ok with 20 years of testing and research its hardly a rush to judgement.Also the GMO foods we eat now have not proven to detract from the vibrant food snob market at whole foods and elsewhere .The affluent will never eat this fish they will buy wild salmon and novascotia lox until they are depleted .this looks like a viable high protein lower cost food source for many with less affluent even poor situations.Its truely a loaves and fishes creation.If a salmon could just mate with a char it would have happenened anyway

    1. So you are saying that the poor don't deserve the same quality food as the affluent? That is where the problem lies! Everyone deserves high quality food, no matter what your economic status. Your thought process is backwards!


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