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capitalism and the commodification of salmon

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by Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark
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On February 25, 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closed the public comment period for the environmental assessment of the AquAdvantage Salmon. Their review of the first genetically modified animal for human consumption concluded with a “finding of no significant impact.”1 Numerous fishermen, consumer safety advocates, public health officials, ecologists, and risk assessment experts submitted comments that directly challenged this finding. Despite the opposition, it is very likely that the FDA’s approval of this genetically engineered salmon and precedent-setting regulatory process is imminent.
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AquAdvantage Salmon is a patented fish created and owned by a leading aquaculture technology corporation. The species has been genetically altered so that the fundamental traits and characteristics of an Atlantic salmon are now blended with the ocean pout, an eel-like species, and the Chinook, a salmon native to the Pacific Ocean. The result is a genetically modified salmon that grows at twice the rate of an Atlantic salmon, enabling it to reach a harvestable size in eighteen months instead of three years.Time magazine heralded it as one of “the best inventions of 2010.”2
The aquaculture industry and corporate investors are championing this recent development in food biotechnology. They propose that this “invention” will yield ecological benefits, such as preserving wild salmon, while enhancing efficiency. The biotechnology sector is excited, as the unprecedented approval of genetically modified animal species for human consumption opens the door for the food industry into this realm of production. While genetically engineered plants have been readily produced and consumed in the United States, animals represent the next great market leap.
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The story of genetically modified salmon is bound to the commodification of food, the intensification of seafood production, the overexploitation of fish stocks, and so-called technological solutions to address environmental problems. Unfortunately, the discussion of fisheries and oceans is constrained by ideological justifications that prevent a comprehensive assessment. For example, the depletion of fisheries is often referred to as a tragedy of the commons, where too many selfish fishers are chasing too few fish. Private property and technology are generally presented as solutions that will save fisheries and feed the world’s growing population. This argument has been used to justify subsequent conservation and management policies in fisheries. We contend that it is an inadequate explanation for the decline in fish populations and that its solutions are misdirected and problematic. As a counter, we propose that the tragedy of the commodity serves as a more appropriate explanation for the sweeping changes in oceans, fisheries, and recent efforts to introduce genetically modified salmon. This alternative approach presents how the logic of capital has shaped production and commodification processes. It also highlights how the most recent case of biotechnology in relation to salmon serves the needs of capital by increasing control of biological and ecological systems in order to better conform to economic dictates. The genetic modification of salmon is part of a biological speedup, whereby natural processes are transformed to achieve faster rates of return in the food marketplace.
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