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Genetically Engineered Salmon

June 6th, 2014
By Aurora Paulsen, Legal Fellow, Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

This article was originally published in the Oregon State Bar Sustainable Future Section Spring Newsletter

This year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to take the unprecedented step of approving a genetically engineered (GE) animal—the GE salmon—for human consumption. However, scientists, public interest organizations, and the public are seriously concerned about environmental impacts from the GE salmon, and alarm is growing over broader sustainability issues raised by genetically engineering animals for food.

The GE Salmon

AquaBounty Technologies has genetically engineered a salmon to reach market weight more quickly than natural salmon. To accomplish this, AquaBounty injects Atlantic salmon eggs with a genetic “antifreeze” promoter from an ocean pout (an eel-like animal) and a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon. The ocean pout promoter acts like a switch, causing GE salmon to continuously produce an insulin-like growth factor hormone and thus grow year-round, instead of only during the spring and summer, like natural salmon. Similarly, the Chinook salmon gene causes GE salmon to grow more quickly early in life. Thus, according to Aquabounty, GE salmon reach adult size in sixteen to eighteen months, rather than two and a half years.

AquaBounty states that it will develop the GE salmon eggs from all-female salmon on Prince Edward Island in Canada, treating the eggs so at least 95 percent are infertile. Next, the company will fly the GE eggs to an inland facility in Panama, where it will raise, harvest, and process the salmon before shipping them back to the U.S. for sale. Regulatory approval would pave the way for other GE salmon facilities, as well as the production of other types of GE fish.

U.S. Regulatory Status

AquaBounty first applied for commercial approval of the GE salmon more than a decade ago, but considerable scientific, political, and public opposition slowed that application. Further, the U.S. lacked any administrative process for evaluating GE animals until 2008, when FDA wedged GE animals into its regulatory ambit by characterizing them as “animal drugs.”

In December 2012, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), FDA released a draft environmental assessment (EA) and preliminary finding of no significant impact (FONSI), proposing not to do a full environmental impact statement (EIS). The agency has not yet announced whether it would require labeling for GE salmon, but it currently maintains that GE foods are substantially equivalent to natural ones, and thus do not need special labels.

FDA is expected to issue a final EA and FONSI in 2014, allowing AquaBounty to market its GE salmon in the U.S. However, public interest organizations have argued that FDA must undertake a full EIS before deciding whether to approve the GE salmon, pointing to inadequacies in the agency’s current evaluation. For example, FDA, which focuses on food safety, lacks expertise in environmental assessments, and prominent government scientists have criticized FDA’s evaluation of the GE salmon for being overly simplistic and failing to adequately capture environmental risks.

In the meantime, nearly 2 million people have contacted FDA to oppose approval, and many high profile U.S. restaurants and grocers—including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods—have pledged not to sell the GE salmon.

Regulatory Status Abroad

Because AquaBounty plans to develop GE salmon eggs in Canada and then grow the salmon in Panama, bringing the GE salmon to market entails compliance with environmental laws in those countries. However, as in the U.S., citizens in Canada and Panama have questioned the legality of AquaBounty’s GE salmon production.

Canada has a law that, like NEPA, requires the government to analyze environmental impacts. In November 2013, Canada approved AquaBounty’s application for commercial GE salmon production at the Prince Edward Island facility. However, two months later, in January 2014, Canadian public interest groups filed a lawsuit alleging that the government had failed to obtain necessary information and analyze important risks, and also had declined to disclose data to the public, as required.

In Panama, a local environmental group, supported by an international coalition, filed a November 2013 administrative petition with that country’s government asserting that AquaBounty’s experimental GE salmon production facility is missing multiple legally required permits and inspections, including a wastewater discharge permit. If not remedied, those violations will lead to litigation in Panama.

Specific Environmental Concerns

In general, farming carnivorous fish such as salmon increases pressure on wild fish stocks because farmed carnivorous fish consume smaller, wild-caught fish as feed, at a negative protein ratio (i.e., on average, fish farms need two and a half or three pounds of forage fish to grow one pound of salmon). Further, fish farms often degrade local ecosystems by producing concentrated waste and introducing drugs and chemicals such as antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones. Finally, farmed fish—including millions of farmed salmon—routinely escape, potentially imperiling native species by interbreeding and spreading disease, which is endemic on overcrowded fish farms.

The GE salmon, in particular, might jeopardize wild salmon, including species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Studies indicate that the GE salmon’s overproduction of the insulin-like growth factor could lead to behavioral changes, such as increased aggressiveness and altered breeding and migration patterns. Although those traits ultimately might make GE salmon less viable in the wild, they would not necessarily decrease breeding success. Thus, scientists warn that GE salmon could introduce maladaptive genes into wild salmon populations, making those populations more vulnerable to environmental stressors.

As FDA recognizes, many of AquaBounty’s GE salmon (up to 5 percent) will be fertile, meaning that they could breed with wild salmon upon escape. Given that millions of farmed salmon have accidentally been released into the wild over the past decade, escapes of the GE salmon are essentially inevitable. Once GE salmon escape, the damage to the environment—a living, self-propagating transgenic pollution—is irreversible.

Broader Sustainability Issues

AquaBounty asserts that GE salmon and other GE fish will help feed the growing world population. However, people in third-world countries cannot afford to eat top fish predators like salmon, and instead must compete for the prey fish that are harvested as feed for farmed fish. Allowing production of GE salmon would exacerbate this transfer of protein from undeveloped to developed nations.

More fundamentally, hunger exists not because the world does not produce enough food for everyone (it does, according to the United Nations World Food Programme), but because the poor lack access to food. Sustainable approaches to addressing world hunger include stemming massive food waste—globally, one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted—and changing aspects of global food distribution networks. In contrast, biotechnological quick-fix options like the GE salmon, which primarily benefit corporations and entail consequent risks of irreversible environmental harm, are not sustainable solutions for global hunger.

In weighing the merits of a GE food, we must ask who receives the benefit from that food, and who bears the risk. As a rule, those who expect to gain little or nothing will reject a risky endeavor, and especially one that entails substantial risks, however speculative. Instead, the potential benefit must be significant enough to justify the risk. However, with GE salmon, as with other GE foods, the benefits, which are financial, accrue almost exclusively to corporations (minus, perhaps, or perhaps not, some minor price reduction for consumers), while the public bears the risk of irreparable environmental harm.

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