GENEWATCH
 
FISHY BUSINESS AT THE FDA
By Eric Hoffman
 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced on August 25 that it is considering approval of a genetically engineered (GE) salmon for human consumption, which would make it the first GE animal to enter the food supply. FDA only gave the public a few weeks to respond to this announcement and to analyze their data even though they have had this application on their desks for over ten years. This data revealed that these modified fish pose a variety of threats.

The GE salmon, created by a corporation called AquaBounty, is engineered to grow twice as quickly as its non-engineered counterparts—and that's cause for concern. If the GE salmon escapes from aquaculture farms where it is raised and enters the open ocean, it could contaminate natural populations with its genes and weaken salmon populations. Of particular concern is the survival of natural Atlantic salmon, which are already listed as endangered. Indeed, research published in a report by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences indicates that a release of just 60 genetically engineered salmon into the wild could lead to the extinction of a natural population of 60,000 salmon in less than 40 fish generations.

AquaBounty claims their fast-growing fish would be contained and will not escape into local waterways. One not need look further than the Asian carp in the Great Lakes to know that even the best containment systems fail. Natural disasters, wear-and-tear and human error can all lead to breaks in AquaBounty's containment systems and escaped genetically engineered salmon in our waterways.

The company also claims that their fish will be sterilized, but even their own data admits that up to 5% of the eggs may remain fertile.1 AquaBounty claims to have orders for 15 million eggs.2 That means that right off the bat we may have up to 750 thousand fertile fish that can escape and wreak havoc on the environment. Even more troubling is the fact that AquaBounty will still need fertile males and females to fertilize their genetically engineered eggs.

Human health is a pressing concern as well. One consequence of government approval of the genetically engineered salmon would likely be the use of even more antibiotics in aquaculture, increasing opportunities for drug-resistant bacteria to develop. Farmed salmon are given more antibiotics than any other livestock by weight, and the GE salmon could require even more antibiotics, since AquaBounty's fish would be less fit, making them even more susceptible to disease.3

In addition, scientists have raised concerns about how physical properties of genetically engineered animals could make them unsafe to eat, but neither AquaBounty nor the federal Food and Drug Administration have made the GE salmon available to independent experts for safety testing. It is irresponsible for the FDA to say these fish are safe to eat without such testing.

AquaBounty's plan for raising these fish was designed with the intent of avoiding U.S. environmental law. They plan on fertilizing the eggs in Prince Edward Island in Canada, shipping them to Panama to be raised and processed, and then shipped back to the U.S. to be eaten. Despite open claims that they will expand their operations to the U.S. and other countries, the FDA is refusing to look at the cumulative harms their commercial operation will have on the environment.

Fortunately, a final decision by the FDA has not been made, and citizens are rising up to pressure the FDA to reject the genetically engineered salmon. 171,645 comments from the public were submitted to the FDA demanding that this fish not be approved for human consumption. In addition, letters signed by over 300 environmental and public health organizations, chefs, restaurants, and tribal communities were submitted telling the FDA to deny approval of the GE salmon.

On September 16, Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and Ben and Jerry's organized a demonstration about the salmon in front of the White House. At the demonstration, CEO of Ben & Jerry's, Jostein Solheim, explained why his company is against the GE salmon. Once the door is opened, he explained, the FDA is prepared to approve a number of genetically engineered animals and Ben & Jerry's does not want a genetically engineered dairy cow to be next. In protest, they announced the symbolic renaming of their famous "Phish Food" ice cream to "Something's Fishy" and passed out coupons for free ice cream to rally participants.

And on September 20, the public was allowed to testify before an FDA committee considering the GE salmon application. Friends of the Earth wrote comments to the FDA, which were signed by twenty other organizations in the U.S. and Canada, highlighting the environmental threats posed by approval of this genetically engineered salmon. We called on the FDA to conduct a comprehensive and independent environmental impact review before any decisions on approval are made.

The FDA committee recognized problems in AquaBounty's plans and requested that more studies be conducted before this fish is approved. The company's studies on health safety were poorly designed and their sample sizes, sometimes as low as twelve fish, were way too small to guarantee safety.

Members of the committee also expressed concern that not enough evidence exists to show these fish will be safe if they escape into the environment. The committee's only expert on fisheries, Dr. Gary Thorgaard, called on the FDA to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement—a comprehensive review of all the environmental risks—a sentiment echoed by other members of the Committee. If the FDA takes this call to heart, it will allow time to fully analyze the environmental and health risks instead of trying to rush the process through as the FDA is currently attempting.         

 

Eric Hoffman is Biotechnology Policy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, an international grassroots environmental network.

 

 

1. Environmental Assessment for AquaAdvantage® Salmon. AquaBounty Technlologies, Inc., 25 Aug. 2010. Page 61.

2. Kaufman, Marc. "'Frankenfish' or Tomorrow's Dinner?; Biotech Salmon Face a Current of Environmental Worry." Washington Post 17 Oct. 2000.

3. "Farmed Salmon Facts." Wild Pacific Salmon LLC. <http://www.wildpacificsalmon.com/site/680079/page/439406>.

 
 
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