Genetically engineered salmon are making their way to your plate
BY MEGAN HILL
ILLUSTRATION BY NINA MONTENEGRO
The growth of farm-raised salmon, a practice riddled with environmental and health concerns, doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down. One of the latest developments took place in November, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically-engineered (GE) Atlantic fish, green-lighting its production in land-based facilities in Canada and Panama by manufacturer AquaBounty Technologies.
AquAdvantage salmon contains growth-promoting genes from Pacific Chinook and Arctic eelpout that allow it to grow twice as fast as wild salmon. If all goes according to plan, you could see AquAdvantage salmon in grocery stores in two years — even in states like Oregon and Washington, which have seen initiatives to require the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) defeated.
Summarizing the ruling on its website, the FDA says it “rigorously evaluated extensive data submitted by” AquaBounty and came to the conclusion that the GE salmon is “safe for the fish” and “would not have significant impact on the environment of the United States” because it’s extremely unlikely that GE salmon would escape the land-based facilities and compete with fragile wild-salmon populations.
That’s all nonsense, says Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. His organization is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the FDA to reverse the ruling and block the sale of AquAdvantage salmon. One aim of the lawsuit is to pin the FDA on its bad science, says Hanson, calling the FDA’s research “a middle-school science study at best.”
First, Hanson says, the assumption that the fish are confined and won’t get out into the ocean to compete with wild fish is spurious. The facility where the fish will be raised is “120 feet from and 10 feet in elevation above the sound that’s directly connected to the ocean,” an inadequate location to be considered safely inland, he says, especially if there was a natural disaster that destroyed the pens and washed the fish into open water. Human negligence could also factor into the sh’s accidental release into the wild.
Further, says Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth, another plaintiff on the lawsuit, the FDA looked at only one facility, and AquaBounty has publicly said they would like to grow AquAdvantage fish in the United States, rather than in Panama, and sell it around the world,
“The facilities in Panama have already had a history of ‘lost salmon,’” she says. “The FDA made a lot of its regulatory decisions based mostly on data provided by AquaBounty, which is the company seeking to make its own profits.”
While the fish is engineered to be sterile, Hanson says the sterility measures aren’t 100 percent effective. “The company’s own data that they gave to the FDA suggests that the fish are going to be between 95 and 99 percent sterile,” he says. Without an absolute guarantee of sterility, there’s a chance that escaped farmed salmon could get into the gene pool.
Further, GE salmon are ravenous creatures, thanks to that growth hormone. “Anyone past adolescence has some vague memory of how hungry they were when their growth spurt was going on,” Hanson says. “My brothers and I, when we were teenagers, we cleared out Mom’s refrigerator and then we went next door to the neighbor and cleared it out, too. These fish will do that if they get out.”
And there’s more: “Even if GE salmon can’t breed with wild salmon, they can act like they are,” Hanson continues. “The wild-salmon males only have so many chances to breed in a season. You get an endangered species whose males are wasting their melt on sterile females, and the females are eating up all the food.” The lawsuit says the FDA was also wrong in not requiring the fish to be labeled as GMO, which the plaintiffs say it owes to consumers.
The lawsuit also argues that the FDA doesn’t have the authority to make such an approval. Hanson says the FDA has approved AquAdvantage as an “animal drug,” which is spurious. “They’re pretending that the genetic construct in the fish is like a drug for the fish, which is a very interesting and convoluted application of their drug authority.”
Perls points out that an escape could threaten a species that is already in trouble, as Atlantic salmon and some populations of Pacific salmon are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
“There was a study out of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans that the GE salmon may be more susceptible to various diseases,” says Perls, “which might suggest that the GE salmon need to be fed more antibiotics, which brings in health concerns as well, but on the environmental front, if they are more susceptible to diseases, these diseases could potentially spread into the natural environment.”
Perls and others are also concerned that this approval could open the door to other GE animal approvals, which may have untold effects on the environment and on human health. There are still far too many questions than answers, they argue.
One of Perls’s main roles with the campaign against AquAdvantage salmon has been to show that consumers and grocery stores are against its introduction into the market, which she hopes will put economic pressure on the situation, too. Her efforts have yielded the collection of nearly 80 different grocery chains totaling more than 10,000 individual stores that say they will refuse to sell the salmon if it goes to market.
Additionally, some 2 million consumers led public comments with the FDA in opposition to the approval, marking the largest number of comments the administration has ever received on an action.
That precedent is only slightly heartening to fishers like Mosness, who says if these fish hit the market, they’re certain to be priced more cheaply than wild-caught salmon, like the sh she caught in Alaska for 25 years and that her son now makes a living from.
And that could have widespread effects beyond just fish, she says. “By undercutting the commercial fishing business so drastically, communities that are reliant on wild fish may find that their population can no longer sustain itself by commercial fishing. Therefore, they may not resist other economic opportunities like oil pipelines, coal trains, and open pit mines. That’s the very dire outcome of bankrupting coastal communities.”
Megan Hill is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, and the outdoors.