Last month over ninety groups cheered as the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment that would bar the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from using funds in the 2012 fiscal year to approve a genetically engineered salmon currently under review. Its passage, which is now headed to the U.S. Senate for debate, has been celebrated by environmental, consumer, health, and animal welfare organizations, along with fishing groups and associations, food companies and businesses.
Representatives Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Don Yong (R-AK) should be applauded for their stalwart protection of wild salmon, yet commentators sympathetic to the financial interests of the biotech company behind the salmon have begun to discredit the Congressional intervention, calling the amendment Congressional activism and policy devoid of science.
Now the public, the investment community and even journalists are being led to believe that genetic engineering isn't merely a tool but it is vital to solving the problems facing our world's oceans. This idea that a technology like genetic engineering will solve such large and complex problems-the "techno-fix" mentality-can spiral out of control easily, and when left unchecked can create a problem exponentially larger than the original.
The case of the GE salmon is no different. The engineered Atlantic salmon currently under review by the FDA was developed by AquaBounty Technologies, which artificially combined growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout. This modification causes production of growth hormone year-round, creating a fish the company claims grows at twice the normal rate. Its proponents suggest that this fish will be a panacea to solve depleting wild stocks, chronic pollution and the need to feed a growing population.
The danger in supporting such an application is not merely that GE salmon will fail to meet these goals and will likely cause more problems than they solve, but that in doing so they will distract policymakers, members of the public and experts from identifying robust and comprehensive solutions for the underlying problems we face, becoming a veritable engineered red herring.
As previous articles in GeneWatch have described, the GE salmon application raises numerous concerns for biodiversity and the overall ecological health of our aquatic environments. An unintended escape of GE fish would likely result in interbreeding with wild counterparts, increased pressure on wild stocks for food resources and mates, disruption of food chains and a potential impact on waterfowl and other non-fish species. AquaBounty claims that all its fish will be sterile females, but its own data shows that the triploid sterilization process is not effective in about five percent of treated eggs. Even in the absence of escape, GE fish would likely result in a number of unintended consequences including the propagation and spread of deadly fish diseases, concentration of harmful wastes and industrial drugs and chemicals escaping into rivers, lakes and open waters, and the over-fishing of forage fish for use as feed.
The farming of carnivorous fish like salmon requires massive quantities of wild forage fish for use as fishmeal and fish oil, inputs that cannot sufficiently be replaced by vegetarian alternatives. It can take from 3 to 10 lbs. of forage fish to produce just 1 lb. of farmed salmon.1 This is a discrepancy that stands to be made worse by GE salmon designed to grow faster as they will likely need more food, thus increasing the pressure on wild fish stocks that are already over-fished for use in aquaculture operations.
Keep in mind that the forage fish being used in substantial quantities for aquaculture feed are the same prey fish that wild species like dolphins, tuna, sharks, whales and wild salmon depend on as their main source of food. Forage fish like sardines, herrings and anchovies are also a vital component in human diets in many places around the world where prices for salmon (farmed or wild-caught) will remain out of reach. The public is being led to believe that GE salmon will reduce the pressure on wild stocks, but they are being deceived.
If farming GE salmon will not reduce pressure on wild stocks, why is it being proposed? Genetic engineering in aquaculture is being promoted because fish farms suffer the same reduction in growth that any other livestock operations do. When animals are confined they aren't as healthy and don't grow as fast, and fish are no different. Creating a fish that the company claims grows at twice the normal rate is designed to mitigate reduction in growth experienced as the result of over-crowding.
Farmed fish, including farmed salmon, are already given more antibiotics than any other food animal by weight. By AquaBounty's own admission, GE salmon will be weaker and more susceptible to disease than conventional salmon. This fact will require salmon farms to increase their use of antibiotics on the GE salmon they raise in order to prevent the spread of disease within their tanks or pens. Genetic engineering is merely a band-aid solution on the failing fish farm experiment.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Taking a cue from Alaska, which has prohibited fish farming and instead invested in proper management, wild fisheries can flourish when properly supported and can produce abundant food as well as generate jobs and economic benefits across multiple sectors. In fact, this year Alaska has experienced near-record returns in its wild salmon fisheries. The seafood industry in Alaska is the largest private sector employer, creating 56,600 direct and 22,000 indirect jobs annually, more jobs than oil, gas and mining combined.2
Research published by Andrew Dyke and U. Rashid Sumaila notes that wild fisheries can also have significant economic impacts in other sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and financial services. They found that regionally, every $1 of fisheries-sector output supports more than $3 of output throughout the North American economy.3 Many of Alaska's salmon processors are based in Seattle and elsewhere in Washington, Oregon or California, meaning that revenue and value is generated and spread across many states.
Approval of GE salmon to be grown across our borders in Canada, which the company is seeking, is not in our nation's best interest, especially given the tremendous investment that has been made by Federal and State agencies to restore wild salmon fisheries in the Northeast where Atlantic salmon is currently on the endangered species list.
Our oceans and marine environments stand at a crossroads, but fortunately, the American people have been given a choice. Do we continue down the road toward further industrialization, consolidation and ecological degradation? Or do we muster the political will to support those members of Congress who reject the notion that a single technology, like genetic engineering, will solve our ocean's problems and instead advocate for policy changes that will effectively protect them?
Colin O'Neil is the regulatory policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety a public advocacy non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.
1. Naylor, R.L and Burke, M. (2005) Aquaculture and Ocean Resources: Raising Tigers of the Sea. Stanford University Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 30, page(s) 185-218; Pinto, F. and Furci, G. (2006) Salmon Piranha Style: Feed Conversion Efficiency in the Chilean Salmon Farming Industry, Edited by R. Pizarro, Terram Publications.
2. Northern Economics of Anchorage (January 2009) The Seafood Industry in Alaska's Economy. Commissioned by the Marine Conservation Alliance, At-sea Processors Association and the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.
3. Dyck, A.J. and U.R. Sumaila. 2010. Economic impact of ocean fish populations in the global fishery.