The GM salmon saga

February 2012

salmon head
Photo by She Paused 4 Thought on Flickr
Anyone who's been following the GM food issue will be aware of periodic headlines announcing that GM salmon is about to hit shop shelves in the US at any time now ...

These 'novel' fish have been under development since the 1990s, so where are they?

GM salmon creator, AquaBounty, describes its grand plan thus. First gain a foothold in the US. Once it's salmon are “approvable” there, then regulators elsewhere will be prepared to review the GM fish and the company will be able to access wider markets. After that Aquabounty will be looking “absolutely” to China.

For a kick off, the main industry lobby group, Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), spent $4 million in the first half of 2010 alone encouraging the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve GM animals. BIO's tactics are clear: GM salmon reaching the market will open the door to a stream of other genetically engineered animals, such as environmentally-friendly pigs and mad-cow-disease-resistant cows, already in the pipeline.

The selling points of the fish are that, because of the engineered gene which boosts its growth-hormone levels, they grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of the three years it takes wild salmon (AquaBounty's ones don't actually grow any bigger). The GM fish can be farmed in inland pens and can be made mostly female and mostly sterile. AquaBounty claim this will boost US salmon production, provide more fish for the world, and ease the over-fishing crisis.

Back in 2010, the FDA completed its preliminary analysis of the GM salmon. What emerged were the usual science-free platitudes: the fish are as safe to eat as conventional salmon, and are not expected to have a significant impact on the environment. No doubt anticipating that escape into the wild would be the biggest practical hurdle to the acceptance of the GM fish, the US government Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Commerce, and National Science Foundation have awarded AquaBounty $1.95 million of tax payers money to research fish sterilization techniques since 2003.

However, GM salmon are still not on the table, and major concerns continue to arrive from all quarters:
  1. The safety of food spiked with animal growth-hormone has not yet been resolved (see GM SALMON - MEASURABLY DIFFERENT and FREAKY FISH - GMFS News Archive, November 2010)
  2. In 2009, GM fish from the research facilities on Prince Edward Island, Canada, tested positive for a mutated version of Salmon Anaemia virus. Any such infection prevents permits being issued either for import or domestic transfers. (COMMENT It's never been revealed whether the fast-growing fish are susceptible to viral or other infections, nor whether the viral mutation was facilitated by the GM fish. This could be a major human and environmental health issue, a major animal welfare issue, and a major commercial issue.)
  3. Testimony before a Senate committee set up in 2011 to look into the risks imposed by GM salmon included the misgiving that the fish still haven't received the scrutiny that's due even after all the years of development.
  4. Also still prominent are concerns that the GM salmon could wreak havoc on natural fish stocks and on aquatic ecosystems:
  • Despite the huge grants to investigate techniques for producing sterile GM fish, around 5% of AquaBounty's salmon remain fertile. A two-year study by Canadian researchers reported in 2011 that male GM salmon bred were perfectly able to breed with wild females, showing that it was quite possible for engineered genes to be spread through wild populations in the event of an escape.
  • The Canadian researchers also voiced their view that, although the novel fish were at present intended for culture in inland pens, producers would eventually begin to use them in open nets in the ocean where escapes are almost inevitable.
  1. The AquaBounty fish are anything by 'green'. The eggs will be created in Canada and transported to Panama to grow and then transported back to America to market.
  2. Consumer acceptance is severely in doubt:
  • A 2010 poll by Food & Water Watch found that 78% of Americans didn't think the FDA should approve the GM salmon; a 2011 Washington Post poll found that 58% of respondents would not eat GM salmon; a 2011 European Commission survey found that 77% of Europeans opposed GM food of any kind.
    • Evidence continues to mount that, if the GM salmon are labelled, only 36% of American consumers would willingly eat them. Both California and Alaska are introducing state legislature to require labelling, and if one State gives its population this privilege, others are likely to follow.
    1. US administration attempts to fast-track the approval of GM salmon encountered fierce resistance from groups as diverse as recreational and commercial fishermen, environmentalists, Indian Tribes and consumer advocates.
    2. Norwegian salmon producers who provided 65% of the world supply in 2010 pointed out that demand from the new middle classes of Asia and Eastern Europe was escalating and that salmon has become a global commodity. Puncturing demand in core European markets due to mistrust of the GM version of the product, coupled to a boost in supply from American GM fish farms, could send prices tumbling.
    3. Besides the thorny question of GM salmon becoming a Trojan horse for other GM animals, AquaBounty's fish represent the privatisation of the salmon genome. This could lead to the company succeeding in monopolising the supply of salmon stock, and literally to own salmon farming.
    4. When all's said and done, the fact is that GM salmon are completely unnecessary: there are plenty of wild salmon, salmon farming is already efficient and getting more so, and there are other fish that offer many of the advantages of GM salmon with none of the risks (Greenberg)
    AquaBounty's application. The move came from Alaska where the GM fish would compete with the State's wild salmon.


    That's an impressively long and varied list of concerns about GM salmon: human health, novel pathogens, lack of scrutiny, fish stocks, marine ecosystems, global warming, consumer acceptance, fishermen, indigenous people, global salmon trade, ownership of life ... and who needs super-salmon anyway?

    If the GM salmon saga proves anything, it's that all the same problems crop up when you look at GM animals as did with GM plants, plus a good few unique ones to boot. The good thing to come out of it is that it has wakened America up to the GM threat, to the need for labelling, and to the need to fight for their right to know what they're eating. No doubt the story will take a few more twists and turns before it's done, so keep up with the issue and make sure any friends or relatives you have in America know about it: they might want to take action.

    • Food and Agriculture Biotechnology Industry Spends More Than Half a Billion Dollars to Influence Congress, Food & Water Watch, Issue Brief, November 2010
    • Walter Gibbs, Europe scorns “supersalmon” as GM battle widens, Reuters, 22.04.11
    • E-mail to the Chief Veterinary Officer for Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency from the Director of the Biotechnology and Aquatic Animal Health Science Branch, 27.11.09
    • Margaret Bauman, More concern voiced on genetically engineered fish, The Cordova Times, 23.12.11+
    • Paul Greenberg, Genetically engineered salmon's fishy promises, GRIST, 4.06.11
    • No 'Frankenfish' in America: Congress bans FDA from approving genetically modified fish, Daily Mail, 16.06.11
    • Beatrice Fantoni, Male GM salmon can bred with wild species, Montreal Gazette, 14.07.11
    • Dan Bacher, Federal funding of Frankenfish exposed, California Progress Report, 6.10.11

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