by John Sterling
I once followed a pick-up truck down the dirt road that leads to my favorite fishing hole on the Deschutes River in Oregon. On it was a bumper sticker that read "Cows Kill Salmon." I pictured a bovine predator streamside stalking its salmonid prey. But as I drove on, mulling over the slogan, I made some connections. Cows don't eat salmon. They trample riverside habitat, which muddies precious clean gravel beds that salmon need to lay their eggs. "Cows Kill Salmon" was the message, but the lesson is: everything is connected.
Everything is connected. Patagonia has fought for 25 years to protect wild forests and salmon streams, and to stop pesticide spraying on agricultural lands. Each of these habitats affects the other. Now we face an environmental menace that threatens them all. That menace is genetic engineering: the scientific process of forever altering wild organisms by rewriting their genetic code. Supporters say genetic engineering may cure some diseases and increase farm efficiency, but at what cost? Eminent scientists warn that genetically modified organisms should stay in the laboratory until we know how they will affect human health and the environment. Industry has ignored this warning.
One-third of the corn and half the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Much of the food you buy contains genetically engineered ingredients: sodas, milk, baby food. These products are not labeled, and nobody knows what hidden effect their genetic modifications might have on human beings.
At the same time, nobody knows what will happen when those industrial mutants interact with native wild animals and plants. This unregulated manipulation of nature is a dark threat to the essence of what is wild.
Point: When we started our salmon campaign nearly 10 years ago, we thought the greatest threat to wild salmon was dams. Now The New York Times reports that a Canadian company eagerly awaits approval to sell genetically engineered salmon eggs to U.S. fish farms. These eggs become fish whose growth hormones never stop pumping. They reach "market size" (seven pounds) in 18 months. In a wild salmon this should take three years. The offense to the salmon is agonizing.
First, we domesticate the salmon to produce cheap supermarket fillets. Now, through genetics, we further insult these fish by forcing them to grow twice as fast as wild salmon. And the cheap salmon steaks pose a perilous threat that the fish farmers don't likely consider. What happens when an overgrown mutant salmon escapes its coastal pen and interacts with wild salmon? We don't know. Nobody knows. We do know that escapees from existing fish farms spread sea lice and other diseases throughout wild salmon populations, and compete for spawning grounds with native fish. I don't want to look at a stream in the Pacific Northwest and wonder if its salmon were engineered by a guy in a white coat in a Nova Scotia fish laboratory.