March 17, 2014

For the past couple of years I've been following the progress of a proposal to market a genetically modified salmon, more commonly referred to as Frankenfish. If approved, these salmon would be the very first GMO animal to land on our dinner plates.

When the FDA determined in 2012 that there would be no environmental impact from AquaBounty's proposal to introduce these salmon into the environment, the Internet exploded with petitions and calls for Michael Taylor to step down from the FDA because of his revolving door relationship with Monsanto and the United States government. Taylor served as public policy counsel for Monsanto in the years where they were developing a 20-year plan to introduce genetically modified foods which were subject to their patents and trademark protections.

The ferocity of public backlash definitely had impact. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich joined together in a rare bipartisan effort to force the FDA to address the problems raised with respect to environmental and economic impacts of approval.

All of that happened a year ago. As of today, final approval has not yet been granted. As recently as last week, the FDA informed a Senate committee they were proceeding with caution and consideration to the nearly 35,000 comments they received.

Sloppy Science, Unexpected Outcomes

Credit: Sarah Zukoff
According to PRWatch, the approval process has been sloppy, whether by design or accident. The FDA overlooked potential problems with genetically modified fish -- problems which are now arising in other situations with genetically modified plants. Corn modified to resist rootworms is now under attack by hungry, evolved rootworms.

In the case of AquaBounty's salmon, there is a 5 percent chance that their modified salmon would not be sterile and could infiltrate the general salmon population. This got the attention of Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, who represent salmon farmers in Alaska threatened by the prospect of their business being destroyed by rogue DNA.

Why the push for giant salmon and trout, anyway? Because there's money to be made, of course!

Follow the money

In 2010, AquaBounty ran into financial difficulties. They found a benefactor -- oligarch Kakha Bendukidze -- former finance minister of Georgia. Bendukidze owned almost 49 percent of the company's stock until he sold it in late 2012. However, in exchange for keeping the company afloat, Bendukidze forced AquaBounty to sell their research and development operations to him for $1.

Even though Bendukidze sold his interest in the company to Intrexon Corporation -- a cadre of venture capitalists and biotech executives -- he retained ownership of the R&D operation and laboratory. If FDA approval is granted, Bendukidze stands to make a large return on his $8 million investment in AquaBounty, even though he sold his interest in the company. With his parallel investments in other biotech companies developing genetically engineered fish and food, AquaBounty's research and development assets will profit him much.

Intrexon, AquaBounty and Monsanto

Exit Russian oligarch; enter Monsanto. Who is Intrexon Corporation? Documents filed with the SEC reveal a small cadre of high-powered biotech executives fill the Board of Directors slots, including Robert B. Shapiro, Chairman and CEO of Monsanto Corporation.

Intrexon's senior management team is packed with executives from Monsanto, too. When Kakha Bendukidze sold his shares of AquaBounty, he sold them to the True Believers from Monsanto, other biotech firms, and venture capitalists looking to capture the salmon market with giant genetically modified animals blessed by the FDA.

Given the relationship between Monsanto, Intrexon, and FDA overseer Michael Taylor, consumers should be very nervous.

Before Michael Taylor took his position at the FDA he was vice president of public policy for Monsanto. In that role, he guided Monsanto's policy initiatives to introduce genetically modified organisms while protecting their ownership of patents and trademarks. In the process, Taylor managed to exempt Monsanto from testing GMO foods in controlled, independent scientific studies, ensuring that any scientific results would be controlled by the company.

If the FDA were to approve AquaBounty's salmon, how long do you think it would take for Monsanto to acquire it in order to control the profits and marketing of the next phase of their plans? There would be instant profit for the venture capitalists, and the promise of added value for shareholders of Monsanto.

What about Kahku Bendukidze?

Meanwhile, our Russian oligarch has turned his attention toward evangelizing the benefits of free enterprise and Randian principles around the world. He still holds ownership over AquaBounty's R&D operation and stands to make a killing by doing deals with the new Overlords of the Giant Salmon.

Short answer: Ukraine, or Honduras, depending.

In Honduras, he's teaming up with the likes of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, Alejandro Chafuen from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Morton Blackwell, Mark Skousen from the Foundation for Economic Education, and Michael Reagan. As members of the Honduran Committee for Adoption of Best Practices for the Zones for Employment and Economic Development (Zedes), they are hard at work turning Honduras into a Randian economic paradise. Their goal has been described as yielding "...the most free market governing government entity in modern history - great for entrepreneurs and attracting capital to Honduras."

In Ukraine, Bendukidze is hard at work trying to convince Ukrainians to act against their best interests.

The Georgian reformer stated that Ukraine should quit the practice of subsidizing unviable enterprises which consume tremendous amounts of natural gas and make this country energy-dependent. “If you don’t abolish this terrible social policy, which includes unthoughtful subsidies, and if you don’t strengthen the army, you will have to say good bye to your country”, commented Mr. Bendukidze, “the subsidies create another black hole in the economy which devours resources and doesn’t create anything.”

Mr. Bendukidze believes that abandoning gas subsidies is the price Ukraine needs to pay for its independence. “Cheap gas is a drug you are addicted to, which you need to give up”, he commented, “the lower the gas price is, the easier it is for the enterprises to exist the way they did in the past, with no perspectives, no upgrades and no development.”

Those gas subsidies he wants to eliminate? They keep poor folks' homes warm during cold, brutal winters.

Too high a price

GMO salmon will make an oligarch who wants to transform countries into libertarian paradises for corporate interests to exploit at will an even richer oligarch, while moving Monsanto closer to owning another piece of our food supply. Trademarked fish, rushed to market without a care for the price it exacts.

Again, I ask: Do we need giant salmon so desperately that we're willing to line the pockets of corporations and oligarchs? Do we want their profit centers sitting on our dinner plates? Are we willing to risk our natural resources, the environment, and the natural salmon population on a product invented for the benefit of a multinational public corporation's business plan?

Consider this a slippery slope: First they approve the salmon, then the tilapia, then the trout, and then they lock the market. Friends of the Earth has details:

Nearly 2 million people -- including scientists, fishermen, business owners and consumers -- have written to the FDA in opposition to the approval of genetically engineered salmon and in response to AquaBounty's revised draft environmental assessment in 2013. Despite this outcry, the FDA is still considering the GMO salmon's approval. If allowed, this would be the first genetically engineered animal in the U.S. food supply, and the FDA said it will probably not be labeled, leaving consumers in the dark about what we are eating.

At least 35 species of genetically engineered fish are in development and the approval of genetically engineered salmon will set a precedent that could open the floodgates for other genetically engineered animals (including cows, chickens and pigs) to enter our food system.

Food security should not be a for-profit concern. There are better, more sustainable ways to protect our food supply than this, and we don't need for-profit megacorporations and foreign oligarchs to accomplish that.

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