GMO salmon: coming to a store shelf near you?

It is axiomatic that a new technology is introduced to the media and the public by those who have developed it. And, that they are the very people least likely to provide a balanced view.

Jerry Mander dealt with the problem created by wildly over-optimistic assessments of all that is new in his classic In the Absence of the Sacred (Sierra Club Books, 1991). New technologies are announced with fanfare and down- sides are down-played—from nuclear technology’s early claims (‘too cheap to metre’) to DDT (‘miracle chemical’) to the boosterism for new GMO applications. Mander argued that we had swallowed a ‘pro-technology paradigm’. ‘In a truly democratic society,’ he wrote, ‘any new technology would be subject to exhaustive debate.

That a society must retain the option of declining a technology—if it deems it harmful—is basic. As it is now, our spectrum of choice is limited to mere acceptance. The real decisions about technological introduction are made only by one segment of society: the corporate, based strictly on considerations of profit.

Reports that the US Food and Drug Administration is ready to approve a genetically modified Atlantic salmon brings that problem into sharp relief. If approved, this will be the first genetically-altered animal approved for human consumption in the US or Canada.

The booster is a GMO company called AquaBounty Technologies. Ronald Stotish, the CEO of AquaBounty boasts, ‘This is an Atlantic salmon that is identical in every regard to wild Atlantic salmon. The nutrition is the same, the texture and so forth. … If we were to prepare our fish and other fish of the same size from other sources, you could not tell the difference.’ (Globe and Mail, Sept 20, 2010)

The only difference is that the GMO salmon grows twice as fast as a wild salmon. It has the introduced growth hormone of a Chinook salmon.

AquaBounty has been trying to gain approval through US regulators for a decade. Strangely, the US Food and Drug Administration decided to review the GMO salmon through the process used for veterinary drugs, and not the process for a new food. The Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee is in charge of the review. If approved in the US, it would be up to the Canada Food Inspection Agency to decide if it was acceptable in Canada. There is no word on whether Canada would treat the GMO salmon as a fish or a veterinary drug. Health Canada is just beginning its review.

The review process by the FDA has drawn criticism from public interest scientists. AquaBounty provided data related to only six fish, and significant allergenic effects were seen in that small group. The key issue for many is the question of health risk to consumers. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union points out, ‘Data from a mere six salmon, which is all FDA presents, is not sufficient nor rigorous enough to conclude that no problem exists.’

Meanwhile, the idea of fish farming with GMO fish has raised concerns even from the usually anti-environmental government in the State of Alaska. Even Alaska doesn’t like the idea of farmed GMO salmon mixing with the wild salmon fishery.

AquaBounty is ready with its response. They promise never ever to grow their fish in the wild. They promise to keep their super-sized GMO salmon in swimming pools far away from our coastlines. They also promise that since they only raise female fish and that since 99% of the fish are sterile, even if they did get into the wild, there would be no problems. Other studies demonstrate that up to 5% of the fish can be fertile.

And, of course, they promise this is all about feeding the world—conveniently ignoring the fact that carnivorous salmon are fed on fishmeal which could be fed to the hungry people who will never be able to afford poached salmon at a restaurant.

This issue is worth watching closely. Genetically modified animals raise even more concerns than GMO corn and canola did. The risk of interbreeding in the wild cannot be dismissed. Even if one believes the hand-over- heart pledges of AquaBounty, once approved and being developed commercially, it is impossible to ensure that there is never a coastal operation.

It is also a precedent for other GMO animal products. And if this fish can be approved pretending it is a veterinary drug, what regulatory processes will be used in future? There is no public policy reason to raise GMO salmon. There is only the profit for AquaBounty.

Elizabeth May, Order of Canada, is the nominated candidate for the Green Party of Canada in Saanich Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party of Canada.