Endangered Dinner DNA

Earlier this month, the print version of Popular Science ran a really interesting story on using genetic technology to fight the traffic in endangered species. Here’s the web version:
Is Your Dinner Endangered? DNA Detectives Investigate

In the ongoing campaign to protect endangered animals, forensic investigators can already identify the food on your plate. Now they are working on advanced methods of intercepting even the most carefully disguised contraband – be it tuna, caviar or bushmeat. Their ultimate goal: pinpoint where the goods came from, and stop the hunting of endangered species at the source….

One of the things I found most interesting in the story was the idea that this technology represents a double-edged sword:

But identifying what is on the plate will not in itself protect endangered animals. After all, many people will want to authenticate bluefin, or monkey meat, or whale, or something else precisely so they can eat it….

In other words, if you want to verify that the black-market food you’re buying really is from that endangered species (and hence worth paying big bucks for — remember that scene from The Freshman?) DNA evidence is just the ticket.

Just today, ABCNews featured this Reuters story about the Canadian-based International Barcode of Life Project (iBOL) : DNA Barcoding Aims to Protect Species and Food. According to this story, the database contains:

87,000 formally described species with barcodes filed and more than 1 million total barcoded specimens….

For now, of course, the technology required to read such a genetic “barcode” is extremely sophisticated, and thus limited to research labs and border protection agencies. A technology that will allow you to check the provenance of your sushi by means genetic means seems a long way off. But then, at the pace of technology today, who knows?

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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