RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Giant Fish That Got Away

Lately, the media's been full of articles about giantism, that bigger-is-better mentality Americans have pressed on the world since our founding. We're building bigger houses and buying bigger cars to accommodate our bigger accumulations of stuff. We want bigger airline seats to accommodate our bigger butts.

In 1920, the average American male weighed 140 pounds. Today, it's 188. Baseball stadiums and basketball nets seem smaller and shorter under the onslaught of super athletes. American tourists want to visit the famed tunnels that sheltered the skinny Vietcong. To accommodate us, Vietnam tour companies are digging the tunnels larger.

Now a researcher named Tom Samaras challenges "bigger is better" with "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." Comparing the heights of major baseball players over the years, he's found that for every extra inch, players die 1.2 years earlier. And he adds that "shorter people require considerable less to live at the same general standard of living as taller people." Less food, less water, less waste disposal. Less cloth to cover littler bodies. Even littler tunnels.

In his book, The Truth About Your Height: Exploring the Myths and Realities of Human Size and Its Effects on Performance, Health, Pollution and Survival, Samaras points to studies that find us overeating (no surprise there!) and feeding our kids too much. One study says that kids from ages 2 to 10 actually get 25% more calories than they should.

While Samaras is mostly interested in humans, the "bigger is better" thing is part of our farm culture, too. Ag magazines tell farmers to add hormones to animals because hormones make critters grow faster. Extra hormones like BGH for milk cows make them produce more milk. There's a downside, of course, and now scientists are finding hormones in our drinking water and wondering if the extra hormones are hurting human bodies in ways we've never suspected -- lowered sperm count, early onset of puberty.

But suspicions of great danger never stopped us before, so it should be no surprise that the biotech industry is pitching in by developing a bigger fish. Thanks to my Uncle Joe Dolan, we got the scoop when he sent the article from the May 1, 2000, New York Times. Uncle Joe and Aunt Martie recently sent us a splendid smoked salmon from an independent fish farm, so he knows what's what in the fish biz.

"Altered Salmon Leading Way to Dinner Plates," headlines the New York Times story, "but Rules Lag."

Well, we've never needed rules banning enormity before, have we?

The fish in question are the brainchildren of A/F Protein Inc., owner of Aqua Bounty Farms of New Brunswick, Canada. "Endowed with foreign genes that produce growth hormones, they grow to market size -- about seven pounds -- in 18 months, twice as fast as normal salmon."

To create the giant salmon, scientists added two genes from other fish. The genes force the animals to create growth hormones from both the liver and pituitary gland, while real salmon create growth hormones only from the pituitary gland. The frankenfish grow all year round, while normal fish stop growing in winter when food is scarce.

Frankensalmon require extra food and oxygen during their lifespan, but the advantage to growers is in reducing the time the fish spend in their pens. Two crops can be harvested in the same time it takes one normal fish to grow -- in effect giving franken-growers two crops in one normal cycle.

Environmentalists have pointed out that if the monsters get away to the wild, their extra needs may squeeze out regular salmon. Alternatively, the monsters would breed with regular salmon, something environmentalists call the "Trojan gene effect." If the resulting generation has an advantage over regular fish, it would wipe out all the native species.

"Rules Lag," as the Times points out, and none of our regulatory agencies -- USDA, FDA, and EPA -- have any. Nor does the Interior Department or the National Marine Fisheries Service have authority to monitor these frankenfish. Instead, the government tries to stretch existing laws and laboratory techniques.

The EPA has had a number of wake-up calls with genetically-altered species polluting a normal species. We're seeing lawsuits where normal corn has been polluted with GMO corn and normal canola polluted with GMO canola, but even if the EPA spoke out nobody would listen.

And the USDA (the "A" stands for "agribusiness") is a major promoter of "bigger is better." They love to see products that will let them bugle "We feed the world."

Only the FDA has taken responsibility to test these frankenfish, and they are testing the two implanted hormones as if they were drugs. This doesn't address the "Trojan" effect or the monster escape possibility, but these environmental effects are beyond the FDA's authority.

Even if there was a regulatory agency that could test environmental impacts, the big problem with the genetically-altered foods is economic, and isn't testable. The big problem is that the science puts the means of profit into the hands of -- you guessed it -- major corporations.

Raising two crops per season, the owners of frankenfish have an advantage over regular fish farms. Then, with the regular salmon farms out of business, major corporations like ConAgra and Phillip Morris scoop up the survivors and the food system is further consolidated.

The International Salmon Farmers Association has come out against the fish, a spokesman calling the modification "a solution looking for a problem." He might have said that the frankenfish is "a corporation's solution to the problem of independent fish growers staying competitive."

As consumers and taxpayers, we have options. We can do nothing. That's our usual strategy, then if there are problems we can send tax money to try and fix the damage.

Or, we can speak out in support of the independents and make sure that we support only growers who have promised not serve us frankensalmon. We can say that even if FDA says the frankenfish are safe for humans, we know there are effects that go farther.

A/F Protein says they've received orders for 15 million eggs, which they'll ship to fish growers as soon as they get approval. And, if we buy the fish they raise, we'll be helping build a new monster. Once again, consumers, the ball's in our court.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For information on how to fight frankensalmon and other genetic manipulation of food, contact the Organic Consumers Association, 6114 Hwy 61, Little Marais, MN 55614, phone 218-226-4164, web

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